Wu Wei and the No. 2 Pencil

My son zones out. Eighth grade is prime time for daydreaming, but he spends little of his own time escaping into fantasy. He goes blank during tests. He won’t say just what is happening during those spells, except to insist that he is still thinking about the test. Those of us charged with his education think he is thinking about his thinking. Metacognition is the term. But metacognition encompasses too much to accurately characterize what he seems to be doing in those silent intervals. What my son does is negative in context of the testing process. Metacognition need not be negative. A little strategic consideration of the thought process is often very helpful.
For example, suppose you are taking a test which contains the question “Nitrazine paper turns blue in the presence of a base,” as a true or false proposition. You have no idea what makes Nitrazine paper change color. You set the question aside without further thought, but keep it in mind, in the background, as you continue. After a bit, you come upon a multiple choice question: “Tests for rupture of membranes include all of the following except: a) ferning b) Nitrazine test c) ultrasonography d) Ham’s test”. There’s the word ‘Nitrazine’ again, with some associated information. You know from the previous question that Nitrazine paper undergoes some sort of color change when exposed to solutions of differing pH. If you know that ‘rupture of membranes’ refers to amniotic membranes, with leakage of amniotic fluid into the birth canal, then you can ask yourself whether or not a paper which detects pH differences is a good test for amniotic fluid. In other words, does the pH of amniotic fluid differ from the normal pH in the birth canal. Amniotic fluid is, of course, baby pee (where did you think it went?). Baby pee is pretty dilute, so it is pretty close to the pH of plain water. The pH of the birth canal is the preoccupation of a small, vinegar-based industry – the douche makers. So, there probably is a difference in pH between vaginal fluid and amniotic fluid. At this point, the first question has helped you include the Nitrazine test in the group of true tests for amniotic fluid leakage in the second question. Can the information you’ve uncovered help you determine whether it is likely that Nitrazine paper turns blue in contact with a base? If you remember anything about litmus paper, that knowledge might help you out, but let’s say you don’t. Premature rupture of membranes is a bad thing. You wouldn’t want to miss it. A false positive test is more acceptable than a false negative test. Now you just need to know what color wet paper turns, and whether blue is closer to that color than the alternatives. Wet paper tends to get darker, blue is a dark color, so blue is a likely color change for a paper used to test for leakage of amniotic fluid and amniotic fluid is at least a relatively basic solution. The conclusion is no slam-dunk, but it’s better than the coin-toss which you faced moments before.
This process – reference to more general knowledge in the absence of certainty about specific answers, consideration of the available information in total, cross reference of deductions with the specific knowledge available, acceptance of a more probable answer in lieu of a flat-out guess – all might occur during a reflective pause during the test. None of this is what my son is doing. As near as I can gather, his pause involves thoughts like: I don’t know the answer to this question. Why don’t I know the answer to this question? Am I stupid? What do they mean by asking me this question? Are they trying to find out if I’m stupid, or do they want to prove to me that I’m stupid? Why am I taking a test with this sort of question? What happens if I don’t answer the question? If I miss too many questions, will they make me take another test? What is the purpose of all this standardized testing anyway?
Both the former, strategic analysis and the latter, motivational analysis come under the heading of metacognition. They are of disparate utility for the test-taker, however. At first glance, it seems that we might fix the pairing of unlike processes by getting rid of the motivational analysis. Maybe it would be better classified as a kind of neurosis. But on closer examination, we cannot entirely excise it. There is an element of motivational analysis firmly lodged in the strategic analysis. To get started on the latter, we must first conclude that test-taking is worthy of a strategy. We must conclude that test-taking is not a comprehensive, critical assessment of competence or moral character which demands certain answers or none at all. We must also decide that it is worth doing well on tests, that the people administering the test are worthy of our best effort, and that the test-makers have our ultimate educational success in mind. In short, we must conclude that a test is the sort of thing which properly motivates us to adopt a strategy.
Metacognition may have trouble encompassing the relationship in question between motive and method, but there is a term in Chinese philosophy which captures it: Wu Wei. The words have been translated in various spooky ways, such as ‘non-action’ or ‘acting without acting’. Really, the meaning is not spooky. It looks that way because, like many concepts in Chinese philosophy, it contains the basic concept and the second-order concept. In this case, Wu Wei means to characterize both our actions themselves and the relationship between intentions and actions. A better translation might be, “When preparation is done, your problem is the problem before you.” or as a prescription, “Reflect upon your actions but don’t act upon your reflections”. To de-mystify things a little more, Wu Wei means action is primarily about what is acted upon, and only secondarily about our motives. We act upon our motives primarily when we direct ourselves to a certain action. In the case of test taking, we aim to take the test as a result of reflecting on the relevance of tests to our desire to learn, earn a living, or gain the approval of others. Once the test starts, if we subscribe to Wu Wei, we are about retrieving the information to answer question number one.
The concept of Wu Wei serves the test taker better than the concept of Metacognition. But Wu Wei is not true because it is useful, it is useful because it is true. It isn’t a theory of truth, but it contains a deflationary notion and an artist’s depiction of truth; in Blackburn’s words, it maintains that “the issue is the issue”. From a certain perspective, Wu Wei commits us to a pessimistic outlook. It is bowing to the inevitable and resembles the sentiment in aphorisms like, “Call out to the Gods, but row away from the rocks.” It sounds a little jaded, a little compromised. My son certainly sees test-taking Wu Wei in a pessimistic light. He resents being made to take tests and can’t see focused action as anything but capitulation. The test is, however, about the test, the questions about the items in question, and capitulation about him and his attitude. Likewise, rowing is about the position of the boat relative to the rocks and calling out to the Gods is about the supplicant and his desire to survive. Confusing the two is best for neither. Keeping these relationships straight is what makes best in the first place. I’ve yet to convince my son to adopt Wu Wei at test time. I’m not sure that I’m capable of the lesson; considered experience may be the only teacher for Wu Wei. Perhaps if he calls out to the Gods a few more times, he’ll understand why he should pay attention to his stroke as well.

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