Friday, May 13, 2005

Cubing: A pre-writing exercise

Writing anything can be an intensely difficult process. It’s not surprising then that writing formal papers is one of the tasks that new university students fear the most. Often, just getting the words down on a page in the proper order, using commas correctly, citing properly and doing the required research can be quite a challenge.

Some students new to academic writing may run into trouble when they are trying to (1) figure out or generate your ideas (often called critical thinking), (2) organize the ideas, and (3) edit (check their grammar, word choice, or spelling, for example) all at the same time.

If you try to do all three steps at once, what may happen is that the ideas are organized but not critical enough, or the ideas are critical enough, yet there are still many grammatical errors, for example. If your attention is divided between three tasks, it makes sense that one or more of those tasks may not be done as well as they should be. That’s not a problem if you are doing laundry, talking on the phone, and watching The Amazing Race all at the same time. However, for many students learning how to write papers for the first time, multi-tasking may not produce their best paper. In other words, if you start the paper worried about getting each sentence down correctly or reaching your page minimum, the result may be a paper returned with comments that ask for a paper to be more specific, complex, critical, or have a better developed theme. So, how do you begin? How do you produce writing and ideas that are “more complex,” “thoughtful” or “less general?”.

In this case, you should begin by only figuring out or generating ideas for your paper. Temporarily put aside the tasks of organizing and editing. You can come back to them later, after you have formed clear and critical “deeper” thoughts on the topic. This is important because writing is closely tied to thinking. In fact, writing is thinking! If you haven’t sufficiently understood, developed your thinking on a topic, or explored the complexity of a subject, the paper will reflect that. Thinking critically and deeply about a research topic can seem overwhelming. How do we dig deeper in our thinking? Good research helps because this builds a knowledge base, but exploring that research is another tool.

There are a number of writing exercises that can help students explore and expand their thoughts on a subject. One of our favorites is “cubing.” Cubing, developed by Cowan & Cowan (1980) is a process where you look at a subject from a number of different angles (thus the “cube”). Each side of the cube, or each perspective asks a different question:

1. Describe it (colors, shapes, sizes, etc.)

2. Compare it (What is it similar to?)

3. Associate it (What does it make you think of?)

4. Analyze it (Tell how it's made)

5. Apply it (What can you do with it? How can it be used?)

6. Argue for or against it

This technique is particularly useful for those of you who tend to see things as straightforward and miss the complexity of a situation. An example of using cubing to develop the topic “learning to speak a foreign language” is illustrated below:

Describe it:

  • Learning a foreign language is about communicating in an environment we are unfamiliar with using new words, sounds, gestures, or expressions.
  • We have to learn to respect (eventually understand?) the social norms of the culture or the community
  • We aim to use the language to get our basic needs met, such as finding meals, a place to sleep, transportation, we might just want to meet the locals while on holiday, or we might wish to do business in another country.
  • Can be scary, exciting, funny, or frustrating.

Compare it:

  • It can feel like you are a baby or infant who doesn’t have the words to explain what he/she wants, so it’s easily frustrating!
  • The first time you try to communicate, you may feel like Tarzan, “me want food!” or “me bathroom now!”

Associate it:

  • Initially, I associate it with survival!
  • Over the long term, learning to speak a foreign language makes me think of recreating myself or my identity in a new way for a new context because some words, actions, or expectations that may not be appropriate in my language and culture may be appropriate in another place (and vice versa).
  • I associate it with learning a new perspective or a new way of looking at the world, or learning how to look at the world through the eyes of people who live in a reality different than my own.

Analyze it:

  • Learning a foreign language has many stages or steps.
  • The first stage that many people experience is the “silent period” in which they are listening and trying to understand, but they are not ready to speak because they may be overwhelmed or too scared.
  • How quickly one learns or advances in learning to speak a foreign language depends on several factors including: their ability to hear different sounds, interpret contextual clues, or take risks in trying to speak even if what they say will be mostly incorrect.
  • Progress is also influenced by how much the person needs/doesn’t need the foreign language on a day to day basis, or if the person has social/personal/emotional connections to the foreign language culture.
  • Improvement also depends on the quality of formal instruction and how much effort the language student puts in/studies.
  • Language development is often linked to the culture shock and adaptation processes. Adaptability depends on the individual and/or how similar or different their native language and culture are from the foreign language and culture.

Apply it:

  • Learning foreign languages are important in improving relations between countries, governments, international organizations, multinational businesses/trade, and international relief organizations.
  • Can be linked to Canada’s multicultural policies and immigration policies
  • If more people are able to speak a foreign language, communication will likely improve between communities and individuals.
  • May be important in improving communication in the areas of education, heath care, tourism, or work where there are people from different countries.
  • Promotes understanding and reducing racism or discrimination.

Argue for or against it:

  • Based on the numerous reasons stated above, I now have sufficient points to argue for learning a foreign language!

Planning/invention sites with a focus on cubing (Purdue’s OWL)

There are any number of sites that talk about cubing and invention, but Cowan & Cowan [Cowan, G. & Cowan, E. (1980). Writing. New York, NY: Wiley.] are the creators of cubing, and Purdue’s OWL [Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (2003).Planning (Invention). Handouts and Materials for Students and Teachers. Retrieved on May 13, 2005 from] elaborate on the cubing exercise.

Cosette & Miriam


JJ said...

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