Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Putting Chomsky's thoughts on education into practice

So the other day I posted some of my thoughts on Chomsky's talk on education. That post can be found here: http://punske.blogspot.com/2012/02/chomsky-on-education.html

I was inspired both by Chomsky's lecture and by the process of writing that post to try to mix up my teaching a little bit. I am currently teaching undergraduate syntax and we have gotten to Binding Theory. Normally, I would present the conditions and the relevant data and then once I felt we got that we would do some practice. Now, that seems a lot like the type of teaching that Chomsky was arguing against. It sounds a lot like the type of teaching that I try to avoid (though, obviously, sometimes do).

So I thought, what if I gave them the practice first... they wouldn't know what they were practicing but still would be able to derive the answers I'm sure.

But, would that still be too boring? All the necessary data would be there. Sure, it would be more a challenge. But would it be enough of one? Would it really constitute discovery?

Then, I thought, maybe I'll just give them some random sentences. We'll form some hypotheses and then I ask them to give me the data necessary to test it....

So that's what we did. There was some discomfort at times. Students didn't want to offer up their hypotheses out of fear of being wrong. (That's a trait I need to break them off. Hell, that's a trait I still need to break myself of.) But we trucked along... and it worked marvelously. By mid-point of class they had already come up with the textbook definition of Principle A. Principle B took a bit more work, but with only a little guidance from me, we got there.

But that's not really exciting part. I knew we'd get there. The really exciting stuff came in the other questions they asked. While looking for their own data and their own examples they started to really see some flaws in our phrase structure rules. The discussion was lively. It was a fun place to be (granted, I generally thinking Binding Theory is pretty fun).

So, this Chomsky guy, he seems to be pretty smart after all... :-)

Now, I need to think of a way to try to get them to independently construct X'-Theory. Any ideas?

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