Business – Thinking on Paper’s Essential Functions

I’m often asked by my colleagues what I think they should do with their manuals and how they should teach them. The answer is always, teaching can’t solve everything. And teaching can’t be the sole purpose of your manual either. Thinking on Paper (T on P) is a philosophy of teaching designed to help people think more clearly, rather than teaching them to use a set of procedures or theory taught in a textbook.

Traditional approaches to Problem Solving typically assume that all students possess a single way of doing things, a “brick wall.” Students are expected to be able to think on their feet independently. They should be capable of independently deriving an answer to any question without seeking assistance or input from anyone else. Thinking on Paper (T on P) challenges this assumption. T on P assumes that students are capable of independently deriving answers to all questions, irrespective of whether they:

  • first, ask those questions,
  • if they are made aware of those questions,
  •  if they happen to be forced to ask those questions,
  • whether they just happened to stumble onto the question. ,

At some point, independent thinking is the heart and soul of learning.

In today’s age, many of my teaching peers and students have expressed concern over the “dumbing down” of the writing process – i.e., how much more effort is required to teach and how much more “normal” the writing will be. I would like to offer a few suggestions about making the writing process more challenging and thus more enjoyable for students.

The first recommendation is to develop a separate writing process for developing field-unique questions. This involves a “newness” approach to writing problems that relies on the strengths of the traditional approaches while leveraging on the weaknesses of those same traditional approaches. The key to this approach is to do it systematically, starting with a few basic ideas that may not be well-known at first but have strong intrinsic values. Then move into exploring these ideas in several different ways, taking the traditional approaches as their guide. Doing this kind of work will result in a deeper understanding of the traditional approaches to writing problems and lead to deeper dives into those approaches.

The second important function of the two researchers’ papers was to suggest a fundamental difference between what people know and what they express. In other words, people tend to think in terms of direct expression, while thinking is an abstract process. This difference has a profound effect on how students conceptualize the content of their own papers. It also has a profound effect on how students reason about the relationship among ideas and their expression.

In a recent workshop that I attended, one participant presented the idea that teaching aims to develop systems rather than one-time efforts at developing one kind of system. In response, another presenter stressed that it is important for manuals to go beyond just teaching the student how to use a particular technique or approach. Indeed, he continued, it is also important for a manual to teach the student how to think more broadly about the subject. He illustrated this point by pointing out that even though philosophy can be viewed as a dry subject, with no room for argument or controversy, numerous arguments illuminate important issues.

The third important function served up by the two researchers’ manual was to suggest that students should be encouraged to think more theoretically. Their discussion suggested that this third function is related to the previous two functions but is separate from them in its relevance to students’ reasoning. Specifically, they recommended that a manual facilitates students in reasoning about the different concepts of their writing. For example, they noted that an author begins with an idea, develops the idea, discusses it, and expresses their views about the matter. A manual can help facilitate this process by providing reasons why an author might choose one idea over another, developing the idea further, critically considering its pros and cons, and expressing their opinion about the matter in terms readers will understand.

Finally, the last two functions provided by the two researchers’ manuals are not relevant only to the development of distinctive Manuals but also to the overall quality of writing. They noted that a good manual often incorporates several different approaches in its argument or explanation, arguing both against and in favor of each main premise. Moreover, good manuals rarely go beyond teaching students how to express their ideas clearly in both grammatically and logically coherent prose. Moreover, good manuals do not limit their application to the expression of one viewpoint alone. Rather, they encourage students to develop a sense of balance in their approach to any given topic.


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