One of the more interesting vignettes from my recent conference was a seminar which introduced me to the amazing degree to which science education is a scientific field of its own. A major problem in teaching science, for example, is understanding whether your goal is to teach knowledge, or to teach understanding. The speakers highlighted this problem with a short video shot for PBS in which none of the cap-and-gowns at a Harvard graduation could correctly identify where the mass comes from when a seed grows into a tree. Most of the grads had taken enough biology to recognize the basic chemical reactions behind photosynthesis and respiration, but they had two things working against them. First, the misconception that air has no mass. Second, most classes don’t take the important step of turning knowledge into understanding. They may fit the overarching narrative into lectures, but they usually don’t test for it.
The psychologist Benjamin Bloom (1956) proposed an excellent way of ranking the intellectual level of a particular course, but the same logic can be applied to any sort of communication, including blog posts. Bloom’s Taxonomy has six levels:
This was a revelation for me on a number of levels. For one, I now understand how one of the best science teachers I ever had, freshman year in high school, did what he did. I also understand why some other students hated him like I’ve never seen anybody hate a teacher. The lowest Bloom levels take away any responsibility for the knowledge that you’re absorbing, which has the effect of boring the hell out of the intellectually curious and putting everybody else in a warm happy place. Knowledge of facts and dates and basic definitions may have fallen out of the sky for all the students have to care. Higher Bloom levels force you to evaluate for yourself whether information X is well-founded and accurate, which means that you can test well and still stand a decent chance of being wrong. You can find an amusing example of what I mean here.
You could say that I had a rudimentary grasp of Bloom’s work when I lectured in biochemistry this fall. A TA usually recaps the previous week’s lectures in a one-hour review, which struck me as pretty boring so instead I packaged the material into a real-world ‘problem’ for the students to work through. Prion diseases became a perfect illustration of how protein folding works, lipids gave me an excuse to indulge in my anti-margarine jihad (don’t get me started) and anybody who understands how the Atkins Diet works (and doesn’t work, if longevity is your goal) has metabolism and the Krebs cycle down cold. Without knowing what I was doing I was hovering around Bloom level three and pushing four. Pretty cool.
probably apply the same test to any sort of writing, including blog posts. My favorite online writers reliably score fairly high on the Bloom scale, meaning that they make an effort to integrate each news item into a larger narrative and that they evaluate both friendly and unfriendly developments with a critical eye. To pick a left and a right example, Carpetbagger and Tom Maguire both do an excellent job in that respect. My least favorites, Drudge being the most extreme example, repeat or reprint friendly info without much in the way of context or critical evaluation.
So how do your favorite writers fare? If you’re a teacher, and a surprising number of our readers are, how would you score your work, or that of your most/least favorite colleagues? Have at it in the comments.
So, where does the mass come from?
The mass comes from the atmosphere, which is a source of carbon and oxygen during the light-independent portion of the photosynthetic reaction. (The hydrogen in a tree, which comes from ground water, is much less massive than the heavier atomic species. The other components are much less prevalent.)
FWIW, the oxygen released during the light-dependent portion of the process is released from the water only.
One thing I’d like to add is, each of the level mentioned by Bloom is built upon the other. Without sound knowledge, you can’t achieve correct comprehension. Without correct comprehension, you cannot have effective application…and so on.
This is why the “evolution is only a theory” sticker makes me so mad. It makes a specious case for letting the student do the analysis and evaluation when it is in fact slipping bad information to the students.
Tim, that’s fascinating. I’d certainly put ol’ Digby up there on Bloom’s scale.
Now that you’ve got me thinking about it, my favorite blog posts by almost any blogger, left or right, do tend to follow a particular structure.
1) State an argument that has been made or an event that has happened, OR forward a new argument/hypothesis. This can also take the form of citing a new piece of breaking news.
2) Show through the use of quotes or source material evidence that there has actually been a historical argument of the sort you are going to refute or support, so that people know you’re not just creating a straw man. In the case where you are advancing a new theory/analysis, throw in some quote or source that at first blush seems to support your argument, and makes me want to read further. In the case of breaking news, state why it’s important, and source some content that shows how it is different from what came before, or how it fits in with the theme that you are developing.
3) Now that you’ve established a common context for your arguments, advance your argument by evaluating on their merits the original quotes, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses as supporting or undermining your thesis.
4) To the extent possible, bring up some new piece(s) of information from different source(s), or add a particularly incisive piece of analysis concerning the original hypothesis/story and subsequent events. This analysis bit is the part I think Digby does remarkably well – it helps to remember everything you’ve read. Most importantly, don’t just tell me something but rather lead me through your thought process.
5) Make some type of predictive statement, and through historical parallels or well-reasoned logic, show me why I should a) care, and b) accept that your prediction is a possible outcome.
Using my above structural analysis, I went back to read some of my favorite blogposts, and it was remarkably representative. Is there a archetypal “good blog post” structure? Would anyone else care to take a cut at one?
Thanks again Tim, for an interesting idea. It’s why I’ve really come to enjoy this blog.
P.S. I’d love to hear more about your anti-margarine jihad. Friday “Butter Blogging?”
So the Atkins diet is really bad? I’m in no position to argue otherwise, obviously you know your stuff. But all I’ve seen from people who swear by it is positive results, whether it’s weight loss (duh) or lower cholesterol, or people who have suffered from heart burn for years having it disappear completely after only a couple weeks on Atkins.
I tried it for about 6 months a couple of years ago, and the results were astounding. I didn’t have a lot of weight to lose, but I slept better than I ever have, I woke up every morning feeling new, I had more energy than ever, my mood was better than ever, ect.
Of course none of that means shit if it just ends up killing you, heh.
Don’t let ’em get you down, BP.
God is only a hypothesis…
If you want to see an interesting application of stupidity, walk over to your local Hi-Fi store. Not Best Buy, I mean places that will sell you a set of speakers for $25k.
Pick up some magazines, talk to the sales guy. In no time at all you’ll be told how you just have to buy these special $1,000 a foot cables in order to properly enjoy your new purchase. What makes them so much better? Magical goodness. The special fairly dust properly aligns the electrons in a Sousa marching pattern.
What’s even more amazing is that there are a large number of people who reject the notion of double-blind testing, to validate the claims that there is a difference.
to get an idea, read this…
I don’t think people are being purposefully deceptive in rejecting science, they simply are lost deeply in their faith and cannot see that their faith lacks reason. I said apply this to the Hi-fi world, because their faith is different from religion. It is a belief that their $25,000 purchase was actually worthwhile.
This is not to say that there are not differences which can be found by buying upgraded accessories and components. I’ve found you actually can tell the difference in sound from a CD player connected via the $1.50 throw-away patch cables that come in the box and a pair of $40 Monster Cables. However, I have not evaluated, and I do not dismiss the idea that the same improvement could have been had for $10. As I’ve yet to try a $500 set of patch cables, I’m not going to state for certain that they make no difference, but I certainly remain skeptical. Yet there are others who will state most assuredly that is what you must buy.
I’ve found you can achieve the same thing by not eating as much sugar, and excercising more. I think the key to the Atkins diet is getting people to stop eating french fries, soda pop and potato chips.
Steve S. haha, good point.
Best blog post I’ve ready anywhere today. Lots of food for thought–not to mention a worthy goal to which to aspire.
(I even linked to it.)
Maguire? give me a break. He acknowledges contrary facts, but then consistently finds ways to disregard them, rather than incorporate them into a coherent thesis.
Read Greg at Belgravia Dispatch if you want a conservative who consistently brings his readers to a greater understanding of his topic.
I like Billmon’s use of Comprehension (#2) when he posts 2 quotes and lets the reader Evaluate (#6) on their own.
I realize the blogs I read first and most often are the ones that offer (a usually unique and well thought out ) Analysis (#4) then offer a comments section for Synthesis (#5) and Evaluation (#6).
Obsidian Wings, Hullabaloo, firedoglake, Balloon Juice spring to mind. (fine, yes, at all these establishments there is a fair amount of ideological bomb tossing – I would argue that it’s a healthy thing for most people to have to defend what they believe and feel – it’s like defending your thesis but with liberal use of the f-bomb)
On a side, anecdotal note, I have never been healthier since being on the Atkins diet where I lost over 30 lbs and got rid of my 3 benadryl a week allergies and several nasty digestive problems. (I’m no longer on a strict version of the diet but I do avoid carbs like sugar and grains and am very much healthier and happier for it)
Most of the better blog posting I’ve seen or been involved in has occurred in comments, or has been driven / evolved based in part on discussions in comments. Some blogs draw commenters that punch well above their weight class as “blog commenters.” Some of Wretchard’s regular posters at Belmont Club are great examples of this. I’ve come to respect some of the more serious folks around here as well for bringing their expertise to bear on questions.
It is hard to get to synthesis and evaluation on one’s own, knocking out a quick blog post in a spare hour of just working on it. I usually blog to the analysis level, with a little luck. Getting to the evaluation level on the first crack is very difficult unless you have pre-existing knowledge of a subject, or a lot of time to grow that. Sometimes a blog post that is third or fifth or tenth in a series, with extensive comments, manages it quite nicely, and there’s probably a study in spontaneous organization and learning theory relating to group processes to be made around that. Commenters and other bloggers calling bullshit – often erroneously – forces double checking and in-depth study and seem to drive better quality blogging. The back and forth in comments, if it’s rational and not too caustic, often helps with analysis; but it especially helps with evaluation of one’s own viewpoint. Over at CF we have a couple commenters who, when they put their minds to it, come up with some really sharp stuff – blogger Noel comes to mind as does Mikey NTH, but we could use better evaluation. It only strengthens the analysis, IMHO.
I get to the evaluation level all the time at work, but it usually takes some time if the problem is worth thinking about and outside the couple narrow areas where I have real in-depth knowledge. My preferred method is to do the research and the initial drafting, then leave the draft alone for a couple weeks if I have the time. Ultimately, I either wake up at 4:00 AM one morning with a “Eureka!” moment that makes the whole picture quite clear, or I come back to the brief or memo a couple weeks later when I’ve fogotten enough that I have to try and re-learn it from my own writing. That usually results in evaluation (“WTF was this moron thinking when he wrote this?”) and a re-write, with the colors in the picture being filled in during the re-research and re-writing process. The only way I’ve found to short circuit this process is to pass my drafts over to one or another sharp colleague unfamiliar with the problem, which usually results in a few critical trenchant questions, and a lot of uninformed (but likely common) questions that I should consider trying to answer within the four corners of the document.
What I like about blogs is that the rapid evolution of debates provides a way of short circuiting this process. One commenter’s analysis is another blogger’s evaluation.
The dis-spiriting thing about blogs, especially when it comes to political questions, is that when you have analyzed a problem and later evaluated your analysis critically, the answer often comes down to one’s choice of premises. I suspect that among the more serious people who comment here, if we chatted about a lot of this stuff over a beer, our analysis and evaluation would be largely mirror images of each other – my evaluation might consisting largely of an acknowledgement of your analysis, viewing it as a summary of the weak points of my argument, etc. The choice of craft brews for the next round would probably seem more important after that realization, than winning the debate, because the debate is basically unwinnable. The more deliberatively I approach a lot of these public policy arguments, the more tolerant I become (and less toxic) toward substantiated neo-liberal viewpoints, since they tend to be logical outcomes stemming from different fundamental choices about values, or how they frame an argument. Jeff Goldstein pointed this out w/r/t the FISA discussion, and noted that both sides conclusions are logical and reasonable sounding, if you start from the respective premises. Reasonable people can differ, perhaps, but not if we fail to get beyond the analysis level of giving initial opinions. Um, BTW, make mine the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA.
Thanks, I’ll put Belgravia in my regular rotation.
heh, my margarine rant will come some other day. One reason among many is that it works as the anti-lipitor, reducing the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol while increasing the ‘bad’ LDL.
A thoughtful post with which I agree 100%. If you ever run into me at a bar, you’ll know it’s me because we’ll be drinking the same beer :^)