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The Reading Level of Your Readers

ErnestHemingway

Writing online, I am kind of guessing about who are my readers. I know where they come from geographically and I know how they find me in a search and what articles they read and other analytics. I don't know what their reading level might be and every writing course will tell you that you "need to know your audience."

I make some assumptions that readers of a blog about technology and learning are mostly educators and so I further assume that they have a high school and above reading level. But how do you determine the reading level of what you are writing?

If you write in Microsoft Word, it is simple to use two major readability tests that are built-in: the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

For the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level statistics to come be part of the “Spelling & Grammar” review of your content, you will need to enable those statistics. To do this select “File” then “Options” next go to the “Proofing” tab and check the box that says “Show readability statistics.”

Flesch-Kincaid scores are readability tests designed to show how easy or difficult a text is to read. This score is given in two different ways. First is the “Flesch Reading Ease” number which ranges from 0 to 100. With a score of 90-100, your writing could be understood by an average 11-year old and a score of 60-70 could be understood by average 13 to 15-year olds. A score of zero to 30 means your writing could be understood by a university graduate.  A bit counterintuitively, the higher the score the easier the writing is to read and comprehend.

For comparison, Time magazine averages at a score of 52 and the Harvard Law Review falls somewhere in the low 30s.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level applies a reading grade level to your writing. I learned many years ago that most general news articles in The New York Times have a tenth-grade reading level. Romance novels have about a fifth-grade reading level. 

I ran a recent article here through the test and got the results shown below. The Reading Ease score is about 55 and a Grade Level a tenth-grader in the middle of sophomore year. 

readability statsYou might think that score seems to be low for a post I am aiming at educators, but many sources will recommend that ease of reading in order to boost your numbers and even in your emails and communications. I know that some researchers have said that your response rate varies by reading level. The article linked here claims that emails written at a 3rd-grade reading level were optimal with a 36% boost over emails written at a college reading level and a 17% higher response rate than emails written even at a high school reading level.

When Microsoft Outlook and Word finish checking the spelling and grammar, you can choose to display information about the reading level of the document using the Flesch Reading Ease test and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. You can also set your proofreading settings to flag things like jargon, which is often what pushes ease aside and pushes readers to leave.

This may sound like advice to "dumb down" your writing. I don't think it is that. The English major part of me is reminded of Ernest Hemingway's journalistic simplicity. You can still get across deep ideas in simple language. I like the Einstein quote “Everything should be made as simple as possible,
but not simpler.” 

Wikis in a Pandemic

wiki code

The code behind the Wikipedia article on the history of wikis

The first wiki was created in 1995 by Oregon programmer Ward Cunningham who named it after the "Wiki-Wiki" (meaning "quick") shuttle buses at the Honolulu Airport. They were meant to be web sites on which anyone could post material without knowing programming languages or HTML.

The most famous wiki is still Wikipedia which officially began with its first edit in January 2001, two days after the domain was registered by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. This fact comes from, of course, an article on Wikipedia about the history of Wikipedia

Wikipedia didn't get huge numbers of visitors immediately and it certainly didn't gain acceptance in academia for at least a decade. (Some might argue that it still isn't accepted by faculty for student use, especially when it is used in a copy/paste manner - but that's a different topic.)

I've been writing about wikis on and off since this blog started and a search on here shows 100+ mentions of "wiki" with about a third of those being actual posts about wikis. Most of that writing was in the first 15 years of this century, but I have seen some reemergence in wiki use among educators lately.

Back in 2005, I started getting into using wikis. Tim Kellers and I made one in order to teach about the use of wikis - particularly the use of open-source wiki software. It was what some would call a metawiki - a wiki about wikis.

Wikis were part of the Web 2.0 movement. when we started to think about the Internet as a place where we could build and contribute our own content rather than just read and consume.

In 2005, we were mixing wikis in with the somewhat sexier 2.0 tools like podcasting, blogging, and the photo and video sharing sites that were popping up. Then came social media and everything changed again.

That metawiki that Tim and I made 15 years ago no longer exists since neither of us is still at NJIT where it was hosted. It served its purpose which was to demonstrate to others how wikis are built, grow, get damaged and heal. It looked a lot like Wikipedia because we used the same software - Mediawiki - that was used to build Wikipedia. [Note: The wonderful archive.org did crawl our pages and you can see an archived version of our Wiki35 there.]

Brother Tim and I were doing workshops on blogs, podcasts and wikis which were three things we were sure were going to change corporations and education. Blogs and podcasts are still powerful and still growing. Wikis? Not so much.  

People often described wikis as "collaborative web sites" and they were being used for things like project management, knowledge sharing and proposal writing. The benefits of this collaborative approach include reducing daily phone calls, e-mails and meeting time as well as encouraging collaboration. The Internet research firm, the Gartner Group, predicted in 2006 that Wikis would become mainstream collaboration tools in at least 50% of companies by 2009.

Midway between that prediction, I wrote in 2007 that by my calculation technology generally moves into the world of education in dog years because it seems to take about 7 years for widespread acceptance and usage. This is in comparison to the world outside education, especially if the business world.

It's not that you can (or should) use the application of new technologies in the commercial world as a gauge for what we should be doing in education, but schools certainly lag behind industry and home users in adopting and adapting technology.  

By 2015, I was writing more about the disappearance of wikis and the devolution of Web 2.0.  My own use of wikis as tools in my teaching was also winding down.

I had been using Wikispaces with students as a collaborative tool. I assigned students to work in a class wiki and also had students create their own wikis using that software. But Wikispaces started to shut down and was gone by 2018. Now you can only read about it on Wikipedia.

It has been five years since that post and I don't think I have written anything significant in the interim about wikis. Some people are still using wikis and Wikipedia is in the top ten most visited websites on the Web, but I don't see people building wikis for education (and perhaps not in corporations either).

Blogs like WordPress and DIY website services overtook wikis as free or low-cost ways to put content online in pretty packages, though few of those are collaborative in the sense of wiki collaboration.

I no longer work on any wikis other than editing Wikipedia and I don't think Tim does either. But just recently, amidst all the scrambling to get courses online due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic, I saw a few examples of wikis in education that make me think that we haven't completely hit the DELETE key on wikis.

One example is at coursehero.com with a Comparative Anatomy and Physiology course in which Dr. Glené Mynhardt has students create a wiki page on one specific animal phylum. In an article about the course, Explore More in a Survey Course with a Build-a-Wiki Project, Mynhardt explains how she uses Moodle which allows for page creation using easy cut-and-paste and drag-and-drop commands.

One missing wiki element in Moodle is that it does not allow public access which is key to the original intent of wikis. Mynhardt says “Students can view each other’s wikis, but I can’t share them with colleagues or [the public], and the students can’t share them outside the course,” so educators who want to make the work public may want to use other web page–building options. It's not Mediawiki but using these wiki tools that are in a learning management system like Blackboard or that tool in Moodle or in collaborative software such as Sharepoint or simply creating a content page in Canvas and allowing students to edit the page is a way to bring the collaborative wiki experience to students. And in this time of students sheltering at home and working online more than ever, collaboration is an important element of learning.

Schrodinger's Coin and Quantum Computing

Schrodinger's cat

A cat sits in a box along with some kind of poison that will be released based on the radioactive decay of a subatomic particle. Because these tiny particles are capable of being in multiple states at once (decaying or not decaying at the same time, that means the poison could simultaneously be released and not released. By extension, the cat could be dead and not dead.

In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger spun this scenario. Though paradoxical, he didn't mean that cats can be simultaneously dead and alive, but that until you opened the box you'd have a cat that was simultaneously dead and alive.

When I first heard back in high school I thought of some Zen koans or stories that are equally paradoxical and maddening.  If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Later, I read that Schrödinger was criticizing the "Copenhagen interpretation" which was the prevailing school of thought in quantum mechanics. The Copenhagen interpretation suggested that particles existed in all possible states (different positions, energies, speeds) until they were observed, at which point they collapsed into one set state. But Schrödinger thought that interpretation didn't scale up very well to objects in the visible world.

A clearer analogy for me was when I heard it explained as being like a spinning coin. While it is spinning, it can be heads or tails. We don't know what it is until it falls and stops spinning. No cats are injured in this version. 

I thought about Mr. Schrodinger's cat and about that spinning coin when I was reading something recently about quantum computing. Schrödinger's cat is often used to illustrate the concept of superposition -- the ability for two opposite states to exist simultaneously -- and unpredictability in quantum physics.

Quantum computing is about harnessing and exploiting quantum mechanics in order to process information. The computers we are used to using “bits” of zero or one. If we had a quantum computer, there would be quantum bits (qubits). The freaky Schrodinger's cat part of quantum computers is that they would perform calculations based on the probability of an object's state before it is measured. Not just 1s or 0s. That means they would have the potential to process exponentially more data compared to traditional computers.

It has been 85 years but people are still messing around with the whole cat thing. Some physicists have given Schrödinger’s cat a second box to play in. This cat lives or dies in two boxes at once in order to consider quantum entanglement. Entanglement means that observation can change the state of a distant object instantaneously - something that Einstein considered impossible and referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” 

Are we even close to creating a quantum computer? It depends on who you read

spinning topHere's a leap beyond cats and coins that came to me because I was surfing through channels on the television and saw that Christopher Nolan's film Inception. 

A character in the film returns home after a long time in the dream world and we are told that a little top that he sets into motion will keep spinning forever if he is still in the dream world. If it stops and falls over, that means he is back in reality. It's like the old pinch yourself to see if you're dreaming.

But the film has a frustrating final shot because it ends before we know what happens to the top. It wobbles but then the film ends. That ending was infuriating to most viewers. It was like the finale of The Sopranos. What happened?

Nolan once spoke at a Princeton University graduation ceremony and said that "The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb — he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps all levels of reality are valid."

Nolan's point to the graduates? Don't chase dreams; chase realities because, unfortunately, "over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams".

Can you prove that you're not dreaming right now?

That "pinch yourself" thing isn't adequate proof. What if this is a dream that you're stuck in?  Does it matter? If it is, this dream is your reality. 

This sounds like some philosophical skepticism - that school of thought that I once had to study in school and that also sent my mind running in circles. It argues that we can't really know that anything is real. Why? Some would say because you deny the possibility of knowledge. The side I fell on as a college student was that we couldn't make that judgment of "real" because there isn't enough evidence.

That's enough circles to run around in for today. 


Even cats have been considering what Schrodinger proposed. (image via GIPHY)

The Power of Negativity

There is what is called the "negativity effect" and we have all felt it. The book that inspired this post is not going to be on the education shelf at bookstores, but I suspect that many of you felt the negativity effect in schools.

Wikipedia says that "The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, is the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one's psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things."

As a student, I learned in schools at all ages that negativity really hurt. Sometimes it was directed at me, but I also learned how to use it myself. As a teacher, I knew that positivity was important to encourage student progress. But I also knew that a comment that was very positive will generally have less of an impact on a student's behavior and cognition than something equally emotional but negative. The negativity bias has been studied for quite a while and in different domains.

book cover AmazonA hot new title right now is The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It by John Tierney. It goes back to social scientist Roy F. Baumeister who unexpectedly came to this idea while studying why financial losses mattered more to people than financial gains. He and his team decided to look for examples where good events made a bigger impact than bad ones. The often-cited research ("Bad Is Stronger Than Good") showed that they couldn't really find those good-is-stronger-than-bad examples.

Does this mean that our brain has some built-in negativity? Perhaps in our evolutionary past, it kept humans alert to dangers. Maybe it is in the same category as "fight or flight" reactions. But do we need it today? Why haven't we evolved to balance or even have the positive outrank the negative?

The book posits that if we recognize our negativity bias, then we can overcome the power of bad before it harms us. The book also posits that we can learn to employ the power of bad to our benefit - putting bad to "good" use.

I don't support that latter idea, but I recognize that it is done. Though I'm interested in how this bias operates in educational settings, it can also have negative effects on relationships, careers, businesses, and even nations. If knowing about this biased effect can help you see what is good and right in your life, then spread the word.