In beginning composition courses, college students must learn to write argumentative and analytical essays. By the end of the term, they need to be accomplished in this competency in order to move forward to the next composition course, which expects and demands a deeper ability to coalesce information from varying sources. The last chapter in the textbook Reading Critically, Writing Well focuses on argumentative position writing, using analytical skills to present an argument to an audience. This chapter is the basis of the lesson plan for this teaching perspectives analysis. The two perspectives used in this analysis are transmission and developmental. In comparative terms, both transmission and developmental perspectives have their strengths and weaknesses, although ideally, a combination of the two perspectives works best for this lesson plan, as instructor and student work together to achieve true learning and skill acquisition in the classroom.
Transmission perspective is instructor-centered with an emphasis on delivering content, and for this lesson, the content is straightforward once the teacher delivers it to the students. The intent of the specific session is to develop the students’ skills in both analytically reading argumentative position papers and creating argumentatively sound position papers. Specific session objectives are critical reading of arguments to discover flaws in logic, analysis of argumentative presentation to critique flow and momentum, and recognition of the above as cognitive reality in the planning and writing process.
In the transmission perspective lesson plan, the instructor leads the class through the previously-assigned readings in order to identify the aforementioned flaws and ingrain them into the students’ thought processes for future employment in the planning and writing process. For example, the primary reading of the chapter is an argumentative piece criticizing the use of Native American nicknames for sports teams. The instructor points out the many factual errors in the article, as well as the logical fallacies employed purposefully to deceive readers. This demonstrates to the students that even if a position is morally sound and generally favorable, the presentation of the argument still can be flawed enough to effectively work against the argument itself (i.e., if some of the facts are wrong, how many are right?). The ability to critique the article is transmitted to the students through the instructor. The content is direct; the instructor is clear. This exercise is repeated in another example from the content: two argumentative essays taking opposite sides of the same issue (same-sex marriage) and presented back-to-back in the text. The instructor points out strengths (based in objective fact and sound argumentative structure) and weaknesses (use of pathos for a legal audience and subjective personal examples) for both pieces, in order to transmit the critique to the students once again. Following the primary transmission of content and information from the instructor to the students, then lesson plan proceeds to summarize the learned ideas so they become part of the students’ own thought processes when they next sit down to write their own argumentative assignment.
Developmental perspective is learner-centered with an emphasis on building from past knowledge to move past their current ways of thinking. The intent of the specific session is to develop the students’ skills in both analytically reading argumentative position papers and creating argumentatively sound position papers. Specific session objectives are critical reading of arguments to discover flaws in logic, analysis of argumentative presentation to critique flow and momentum, and recognition of the above as cognitive reality in the planning and writing process.
In the developmental perspective lesson plan, the instructor re-visits the previous chapters of the text in order to remind students of the knowledge they have been incrementally building throughout the term: narrative, description, reflection, explanation, evaluation, speculation, proposition. Each skill set throughout the term has been built upon the previous skill set, and argumentative position is the final skill set added to the established knowledge and competency base the students possess from the coursework and lessons. The instructor asks the students to explore how each of the previous skill sets factors into argumentative position writing: narratives help set the scene for an argument; descriptions help fill in the details an audience needs to know in order to make up their own minds; reflection looks over the assumptions made on the issue while challenging long-held notions that may be outdated; explanation defines concepts the audience needs to grasp the argument at hand; evaluation demonstrates which ideas have merit and which do not; speculation presents possibilities for why things are what they are; propositions offer solutions for the predicaments. In order to argue a position effectively, all these competencies need to be employed. This idea is demonstrated through careful discussion of the readings in the chapter, citing strengths and weaknesses of each reading in conjunction with these incremental skill sets. For example, the piece of Native American nicknames is strong in narrative, descriptive and reflective elements, but the explanation, evaluation, speculation and proposition components are lacking – overall, the argument is weakened by this misuse of the argumentative elements. In recognizing the skills they already have in conjunction with what is missing from this example, the students identify the problems with the writing and can use this new knowledge to plan and write their own argumentative position paper.
As noted in Daniel Pratt’s text, the transmission perspective is not often well received; this extends from the dismissal of “old school” concepts of content-driven instruction. Too much depends on the instructor for this method to work, and all students can testify to the varying quality of instructors at their institutions: “Teacher’s [sic] actions and intentions are influenced in varying degrees by learners, content, context, and their own ideals, and each of these elements in some way influence and interact with each other” (Pratt, 1998, p. 61). In the example used above for argumentative writing, much depends on the instructor’s abilities. Can the instructor connect with her/his students effectively enough? Do the students respect the instructor and her/his expertise? Earning respect from a class full of students from varying backgrounds is tough; it is rare that any teacher connects 100% with all the students in the class. Do the students recognize the validity of the content? Do they think the text is a good one? This is always a tough challenge, especially in English courses: finding the right text. In the example above, the RCWW text was in its 7th edition; that longevity can carry some weight with the students as they realize the book has stuck because it’s “good”. The context for the lesson is important, for the students must recognize its value to their lives. If the instructor has not made that connection yet, then the lesson will suffer. The students’ own ideals in relation to the course content are forged by a strong instructor; a weaker teacher will simply convince the student that the course content is irrelevant to their ideals. The method is so instructor-oriented, only the most confident and competent instructors can succeed using it as the sole method in the modern classroom, where student disillusionment is at a high and their ideals are wavering under the onslaught of external influences. A “great” teacher can pull it off; a “poor” teacher probably cannot do so.
The developmental approach works when students have demonstrated understanding of prior concepts, and without prior knowledge, new learning is difficult. In this case example, the students have learned and implemented several different writing styles and skills prior to reaching this session on argumentative position writing. If they haven’t demonstrated understanding of previous material, they usually have stopped coming to class by this point (of their own volition). Therefore, the RCWW text itself is actually designed with the developmental perspective in mind. As the students have approached each new chapter of content, they have used their prior knowledge and experienced understanding of writing to develop a new skill set. This final chapter of the text is no different from the incremental, developmental learning they have been doing all term in this course with this text. As the Pratt text notes, “Therefore teaching from this perspective has more to do with good learning than with good teaching. The focus, then, is on the development of learners’ thinking, reasoning, and judgement [sic] rather than on specific teaching performances” (Pratt, 1998, p. 111). This requires the students to possess some desire to do well in the course, whether that means getting an “A” grade to meet external GPA requirements or truly learning the artistic nuances of argumentative persuasion in written composition. The teacher still has to lead the way, of course, but the emphasis is on the students’ abilities. How do the students learn to think, reason and judge, as they need to? The instructor is more of a guide in this method, shining a light on the pathway to development. Those amongst the students who choose to travel the path learn what they need to; those who do not choose to travel the path must find another way to what it is they seek. While instructors in this perspective need to do more than simply point the way, a large part of the development is done on the student end, using what they already know and what they want to know as road markers. In this method, the student definitely gets what they put into the course.
Pratt’s text notes a very important reality to remember in teaching, and it applies to this analysis. On page 108, the following statement rings true: “Recall that most of us operate from more than one perspective” (Pratt, 1998). In this case of this lesson plan/session example, operating from both perspectives is valuable and necessary. The transmission perspective requires good teaching skills; the developmental perspective mandates good learning skills. When the two parties come together with the same high level of desire for earnest achievement in the classroom, magic occurs in the form of epiphany and illumination. That’s what education is for those who truly love the environment of sharing knowledge. Some learners may enjoy the transmission method, while some many not. In reality, good teaching is constructed through understanding on content, context, audience and objectives: combining whatever teaching perspectives needed by any specific class on any specific day in any specific course is what truly makes teaching effective. In this way, teaching itself can rise to a higher level for all involved in the process.
Pratt, Daniel D., and Associates. (1998). Five Perspectives on Teaching in Adult and Higher Education. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.