“Building blocks are a metaphor for modeling how simplicity generates complexity.”– Charles Nelson
Zucker, Donna M. “How to Do Case Study Research. Teaching Research Methods in the Social Sciences.” 2, 2009.
Nelson, Charles. “Building Blocks and Learning”
At the beginning of Chapter 14, “Teaching Research Methods in the Humanities and Social Sciences: How to do Case Study Research,” Donna Zucker states that “case study as a research method is often indexed in most undergraduate research textbooks as neither quantitative nor qualitative.” It appears as the case study can be considered as qualitative research since it works with “non-numerical data that seeks to interpret data.” Then Zucker continues by saying that “Little attention is paid to the usefulness of this method, with an average of two pages devoted to this research approach (Burns & Grave, 1999). Why is that “little attention” is paid to the usefulness of the case study method”? Is it a useful method? Zucker does not explain the importance until the very end of the chapter when she says that the case study method can be “a creative alternative to traditional approaches to description emphasizing the participant’s perspectives as central to the process.” This research method that emphasizes the participants’ perspectives is useful in helping educators the effectiveness of their teaching strategies.
In “Building Blocks and Learning,” Professor Nelson provided an interesting case study of his “13 students from 8 different countries in his first-year university rhetoric and composition course for international students.” The theoretical framework was John Holland’s Model of Complex Systems, which stresses four properties:
1.) Aggregation (“grouping items with similar interests”);
2.) Nonlinearity (“the behavior of the whole cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts”);
3.) Flows (“movements of resources among agents via connectors that vary according to systems”);
4.) Diversity (“dynamic pattern because agents engage in progressive adaptations via their interactions with other agents”)
In terms of data collection, Professor Nelson used student observations, tape-recorded interviews, and artifacts such as Midterm and Final Self-Evaluations. Nelson noted that based on conceptual building blocks such as flow charts and outlines, from these starting points, the students were able to produce new learning by using strategies of reproduction, cross-over, recombination, and replacement. Or, as Nelson explains, “Through the aggregations of simple actions, presentations grew more sophisticated and their rhetoric more persuasive.” By allowing the students to deviate from a traditional, linear path of writing instruction, it allows for personalization and creativity.
First, the idea of reproduction where “old building blocks are applied to new situations is exciting, especially in a class of diverse learners. Nelson cites students using varied plans to organize their writing to fit their learning preferences better. A more scientifically-inclined student may prefer flow charts; whereas, other students may prefer an outline. Therefore, writing instructors may want to offer various methods for students to organize their writing.
As Nelson contends, “Dissonance may lead to novelty.” It was noteworthy that one of the students, Ahmed, had “transformed the genre of a final evaluation.” To illustrate, in the Midterm Self-Evaluation, Ahmed provided a usual response. However, in the Final Evaluation, Ahmed made a cross-over in that he offered an anecdote rather than a standard reply. From his response, one can conclude that he has embraced risk-taking in his writing.
However, if a building block is ineffective, then it needs to be replaced. There is a lot of trial-error in education, and educators need to be adaptable and flexible. Nelson shares an anecdote of a student who did not like collaboration; however, collaboration was an essential part of the course. Collaboration, or the opportunity to work with different people, is a crucial life skill. Perhaps as a professional, the student realized that Nelson’s taught her writing and interpersonal skills.
Overall, I appreciated the terminologies associated with building blocks and learning. I enjoyed the paradox: simplicity generates complexity.