Propositional Language – Unfreezing the mind ain’t easy

Propositional Language – Unfreezing the mind ain’t easy

Staring at a blank page can be unnerving. For anxious exam students, the prospect of writing an essay – saying anything – may seem insurmountable. But there is a trick you and they can practice throughout the year to ameliorate their anxiety: write and speak propositionally.

The French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, once observed that you never really know what you think until you say it (verbally or in writing). Until then, he continued, you always have the benefit of the doubt as to whether you actually think something. Until we can say something, we don’t think anything. We can become overwhelmed – even paralysed – with possibility and uncertainty. That’s a scary state of affairs for anyone, but specially for students taking exams.

In my first year of Seminary, I had to write 72 short (500 word) papers for my father, a Professor of Moral Theology. But when assigned a critique of something he’d published, I froze. I immediately went to his office and told him I couldn’t do the assignment. “Why not?” he queried, “no one else has a problem with the assignment – no one else has asked to see me.” “Because I agree with everything you’ve written,” I pleaded, “I have nothing to say that you haven’t already said.” “Nonsense,” he replied. “Surely there’s some question you have about what you’ve read?” “Well…, yes,” I admitted reluctantly. “Then, write about that,” he advised, “Just tell me what you think. You don’t have to be definitive – or even definite – just propositional – just thoughtful.”

I was simultaneously liberated and empowered. I could write questions and then play with possible answers. I was off to the races and never looked back. He taught me to suggestconclusions in order to stave off the overwhelming fear of taking a stand and being wrong – until I was ready to commit to and evidence a point of view that was sensical.

Here’s how it works. To find your own thoughts and investments it’s much easier to say, “Perhapsthis…” or “Maybe that…”  or “If X is the case, then it could be that Y follows.” It’s a starting point – a way of revealing what you actually think without trying to be definitive or even correct. Once you say/write something, you have to deal with it – size it up with your prior learning, personal investments, and textual or methodological evidence – and make a choice. You have to thinkabout it and, eventually, make a decision. Meanwhile, you are absolutely free to posit anything and everything just to see where it leads you and whether that place is defensible and fits with your known world.

We all concentrate on teaching responses to command words in examination questions, and that’s as it should be. But what if we let our students know that examiners aren’t looking for definitive answers on judgment/evaluative questions. They are looking for cogent responses with some kind of internal logic and external evidence that discloses what they think– and “think” is the operative word here; not “believe” – that’s too amorphous. Our opinions are only as good as our facts!

When most students begin trying to write an essay, they may not really know what they think or why they think it. Or, they may have an inkling, but are afraid to take a stand in case they are wrong. Here are some examples that our students have wrestled with in their lessons:

Science

  • What do you think is the difference between battery farming and free-range farming in terms of production costs, animal welfare, environmental impact, cost of the end product? What do you prefer and why?

English

  • “Parents should be allowed to take their children on holiday during term time.” Do you think it is fair to fine these parents? Why? Why not? What alternatives do you think should in place to encourage children to come to school? Why might these work better?

Maths

  • Discuss the difference that can be seen with the expenditures in Childcare, Admin, Fund Raising, and Other expenses for each of these charities: Caring for Children, Childaction, and Children in Crisis.

Each of these exemplars could begin with fact gathering, but then something different has to happen. Students need to begin to take a stand in order to see whether that stand is reasonable and sustainable.

So, does propositional writing help? Basically, it’s an experiment in presenting ideas and arguments. Make an assertion – any assertion, like “There’s a sheep in the field.” That’s pretty definitive, and may be accurate, but indefensible. One Gettier case suggests that what you’re actually looking at in the field is a dog. And, even if there happens to be a sheep over the next hill, which you can’t see, the assertion that there’s a sheep in the field cannot be evidenced by a simple observation at distance. Might it be better for students to propose the following: “It looks like there’s a sheep in the field,” or “Maybe that animal in the field is a sheep?” Remember…, good answer getting is a function of good question asking.

When making an assertion, we are saying that something is true or false or indeterminate (e.g., a future event like Schrödinger’s Cat). But when we ask questions – when we make a proposal – we don’t assert anything – we simply strive to gather information, or discover a path to information, that can be weighed and measured (the criteria of which will, likely, be subject-specific). Propositions allow us to name the content of assertions – to describe the underlying meaning of an assertion. They help us to discover the “why” of what we believe so that we can wrestle with those investments (whether they be testimonially and/or empirically based) and make a reasoned determination of whether and, if so how, they fit into our current world-view.

There are higher nuances, like the relationship between truth and reality – that something can be accurate, but not true – that you can have false belief, but not false knowledge, etc., but these are not necessary for most student enquiries in GCSE subjects. The important message for our students is that there is a starting point: say anything – then begin the work of authentication so they can start to formulate something definite. The confidence that this engenders cannot be underestimated: students have reasons for their own thoughts – they have a place to hang their thoughts in the great scheme of things – they can cease believing and begin knowing.

So, that’s the beginning, but students need to understand that every piece of information that comes their way will compete with their prior knowledge for primacy of place and must be weighed up. This constitutes life-long learning and it can be traumatic. Sometimes we all need to abandon long held and cherished notions in favour of newly acquired information. That’s painful and can feel like a violation of the self. Teachers need to be sensitive to this because they are perpetrating this learning. Like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, we are leading them into the light and that disorientation needs to be acknowledged, understood, and realised in a nurturing way.

Maybe the next time you explain to students what’s required when examiners ask them to argue, assess, comment, criticise, debate, evaluate, compare, justify, predict, or suggest on exam questions, you can guide them accordingly so that they can begin to create reasoned responses.