The Oregon Trail

In 1971 Don Rawitsch, a senior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, taught a history class as a student teacher. He used HP Time-Shared BASIC running on an HP 2100 minicomputer to write a computer program to help teach the subject. The Oregon Trail debuted to Rawitsch’s class on 3 December 1971. Despite bugs, the game was immediately popular, and he made it available to others on Minneapolis Public Schools’ time-sharing service. –Wikipedia

If you attended grade school in the late 80’s or early to mid 90’s and were fortunate enough to have a computer lab in your school, you probably played The Oregon Trail.  For the uninitiated, The Oregon Trail was (and, in its 5th incarnation, still is) a computerized simulation of the massive westward migration that pioneering families undertook in the mid 19th century.  Like those brave pioneers, the game has you travel with a cohort of family and friends in a covered wagon.  Your ultimate destination is Oregon, but to get there you must purchase supplies (including animals, clothing, and medicine), cross treacherous rivers, and hunt game for survival.  Dysentery, cholera, and broken limbs are ever-present threats.  In one version of the game, your party even encounters the occasional (and more than a little politically incorrect) “Indian” attack.  As player, you are given the choice of circling the wagons to defend yourself (and thereby sacrificing precious time), or plowing forward with the knowledge that some of your supplies will be liberated from your wagons.

Though it may sound like a bit of a stretch, this conundrum–whether to arrest one’s progress and preserve resources or press on and sacrifice–is an excellent illustration of the problems that exist with prioritizing metacognitive skills in a Secondary Language Arts curriculum.  In the latest issue of the English Journal, author and teacher David Narter discusses how metacognition (thinking about thinking) in an English curriculum can sometimes lead students to an impoverished transaction with literature.  Narter, in his article Pencils Down: Is Mimicking the Behaviors of “Good Readers” Bad for Good Readers?, states,

“Reading literature, especially sophisticated literature, is most certainly a unique activity with particular objectives besides those concerned with the mechanics of doing so.  The effect of metacognitive reading strategies in this context may be analogous to copying the swing of Angels slugger Albert Pujols.  You can model everything that Pujols physically does–and plenty of players and coaches do–but in the end, Albert Pujols is not just a manifestation of those physical steps.”

Narter goes on to identify particular activities–such as text-annotation, t-charts, and SQR3 note taking–as detrimental to students’ ability to reach “the reading zone” (that magical place of total reading immersion).  He even suggests that concentrating too much on our own thinking while reading might lead to the literary equivalent of “Steve Sax Syndrome”:

“Sax was a five-time All Star second baseman who suddenly lost the ability to make the simple toss to first base.  A similar affliction appears in some catchers . . . The simple toss, given the extra time to think and plan their way through the operation, actually inhibits and sometimes obliterates that ability.  Such players become so aware of the external physical process that they lose the feel of the instinct and talent that got them to the majors in the first place.”

As a hobbyist basketball player, I can attest to the truth of this phenomenon.  When I am consciously aware of the motion in my arms, legs, and wrists while shooting, my shooting percentage goes substantially down.  It’s only when I’m in the zone and performing complex visual-spatial calculations on the fly that I achieve “Basketball Nirvana.”

Curiously enough, the metacognitive monster has parallels outside of literature and sports.  Check out this really interesting performance and talk by Andrew Bird (Link).  If you skip to around the 6 minute mark, you’ll hear Andrew talking about the destructive nature of feedback loops in audio.

Andrew Bird

Essentially, when a microphone gets too close its source, a perpetual loop of distortion is created.  Andrew extends and applies this phenomenon to speculate on the dangers of things getting too close to their original source.  It’s conceivable that the same sort of “feedback loop” occurs when our minds get too close to our thinking.

When we “metacognate,” we attempt to understand our thinking through a third-person perspective.  Neuroscientist David Eagleman has done some tremendously exciting research into the mutability of self-perception.  You can find a fantastic radio interview featuring Eagleman Here.

David Eagleman

In one of Eagleman’s experiments, participants reported experiencing a profound sense of disembodiment when they simply observed a live video feed of themselves.  A helmet that blocked out all other visual stimuli was placed on the participants’ heads, and a tiny screen broadcasting the video feed was placed inside of the helmet.  If our sense of self and fundamental connection to our own body is so easily manipulated, then certainly we are capable of metacognition (at least on a limited scale).  I can pretty much guarantee you, however, that learning to play the piano while wearing a helmet similar to those Eagleman uses in his studies would be far more difficult than learning without it.

The same, I think, is true of reading.  When we “circle the wagons” in our thinking about reading, we master meaning without going anywhere.  In this context, our understanding is window dressing because it is not contributing, aiding, or facilitating a deeper purpose.  Let’s try, as Narter puts it, to consider literature as “first and foremost an art form.”  Only then will we be able to transact, think, ponder, wrestle, and build fruitful meaning from texts.  And only then will we help make life-long readers of our students.