Wilfred Rusk Wees on form and content

I was recently awarded the Wilfred Rusk Wees Fellowship for 2017. It involved reading Dr. Wees thesis written in 1935 and submitting an essay in response to it. The experience was a great opportunity to glimpse into topics and research of interest at the time. It was also a nice way to see how the thesis format has evolved since then (the reference list is eight citations long!) Wees offers a thought-provoking discussion on the effect of form on student retention of content which I will share in the essay I wrote for the Fellowship (below).

(unfinished painting by Mimi Masson)

In preparation for writing this essay, I called a dear friend of mine whom I consider an excellent writer, an expert on form if you will. She teaches writing to young adults at the college level and I figured I could benefit from a refresher on how to present my thoughts on the thesis. Three ideas stood out to me after reading Wilfred Rusk Wees’ thesis, The effect of the form of the presentation on the form of the reproduction of prose passages (1935), a project about exploring how playing with form affects how well students learn to recall content from a text. First, storying a text is a powerful way for students to connect with the content emotionally and experientially. Next, playing with form highlights or erases content from students’ field of view. Last, for students, finding meaning is a necessary part of the act of learning. So how would I address these? I wanted the form of this essay to reflect its ideas powerfully and clearly. Without knowing the details about this essay topic, here is what my friend told me: “Structure matters. In all my years of teaching, I find that however you write the mind will seek out form regardless”. How a propos, I thought. She continued, “The basic pattern in essay writing is the ‘hamburger essay.’ It gets a lot of flack – some find it too restrictive, but there is value in teaching this form in writing. The common approach is to use three main points to illustrate your thesis, placing the weakest argument in the middle and the two strongest at the beginning and the end”. After reading Wees’ thesis, this sounded familiar. In his initial experiments sussing out how the form of a text affects what students remember and reproduce of it, Wees found that the middle part does not stick very well in students’ minds. Much like the first day of setting foot in a new school or graduation on the last day of school, what we remember the most is the beginning and the end.

Through a series of intricately designed experiments with 680 junior fourth grade students (grade 7 today) in Ontario, Wees manipulates the form of 13 short paragraphs, each tweaked in its own way to investigate some aspects of retention and reproduction. The paragraphs were introduced separately to different classes. Wees asked students to read the text on a sheet of paper for a limited time. Students were then asked to reproduce what they remembered about the text in writing. Wees’ contemporary educational context is such that, “[i]n the classroom the procedure by which the teacher implants in the child’s mind the content of the subjects of the curriculum is one of presentation and re-presentation until the content is fixed. Success in his work is estimated by the teacher from the child’s ability to reproduce the content that he has acquired.” (p. 2). This very notion of content as something that can be transferred into the child’s mind and regurgitated on call is somewhat problematic. It places the child in a very passive position when learning. Freire later called this the ‘banking model’ of learning (1970) and developed a theory of critical pedagogy to reclaim learners’ active engagement in the classroom. Wees himself understood the limitations of reproduction and the importance of students’ engagement with content material. Indeed for Wees, finding the ideal form to present content is a way to “free” it for students to use it in “relationships other than those in which it was first observed.” (p.75). Wees returned to this idea later in his career, in his book “Nobody can teach anyone anything” (1971).

But Wees is only concerned with reproduction, insofar as it is a means of understanding how form affects students’ memory and intake during the learning process. The study, rooted in experimental psychology of the early twentieth century focuses on product to investigate the process of learning. Wees diligently maintains a practical bent within his work, reminding his reader that “[t]o a teacher whose primary aim is the child’s ability to reproduce an idea, it is of importance to know the condition of economical learning.” (p. 3). With that said, Wees maintains a critical eye on his pedagogical endeavouring and produces three important findings in his thesis, alluded to in the beginning.

The first key finding is about storying the text. Wee's refers to this as using determinate and indeterminate form. Determinate forms include a specific overall goal or purpose to the text. In essence, they introduce a kind of problem and provide a clear solution to the reader. Indeterminate forms are less focused in their purpose making it more difficult for the reader to figure out what the take-aways are, and therefore more challenging to recall them as well. For instance, in his penultimate experiment (Presentations #11 and #12, p. 69), Wees uses two very similar texts about King George IV. The indeterminate text runs through a set of facts presented chronologically, without any interpretation of those facts. What do they mean to King George IV’s reign? How have we interpreted these texts in History? The determinate text meanders through George IV’s rule explaining the repercussions of the events in George’s life in our historical timeline, creating a story that students can recall about what happened during King George IV’s reign and how it has shaped society today. Indeed, the students in this experiment show a staggering difference in their rate of error: 33% for the indeterminate text and only 5% for the determinate text. As Wees aptly points out, by storying the text, it becomes compelling. It sparks interest in the child’s mind and invites them to think.

I particularly enjoyed how Wees exemplified this idea in his final experiment (Presentation #13, p. 76). In this experiment, students are given information about how to calculate the circumference of a circle. When I read the determinate text early on in the thesis (#Presentation 2, p. 30), I had to read through it twice and I felt a twinge of commiseration for the poor students in this experiment who had to try and recall this text. It was very dry and factual. Not compelling in any way. But the determinate text (p. 76) is written as a dialogue between a father and his son. Although I learned this equation long ago in junior high school math class, I have since forgotten it. The story of how the father teaches the son to calculate the circumference has stayed with me though. Without checking the text, at the time of writing this I can recall that to calculate the circumference I need the diameter of the circle x 22/7. My reaction to the content as a reader of both the determinate and the indeterminate text was vastly different. It seems this was also the case for the students. The experiment shows that 68% of students were able to recall the procedure for calculating the circumference with the determinate text, while less than half (31%) were able to after reading the indeterminate text.

Next, I was struck by Wees’ creative approach to playing with form, not only as a way to conduct his experiments, but as a way of acknowledging that interaction between presentation (form) and content has a way of transforming knowledge. Wee's begins the thesis by describing the uniformity of shape in the texts that the students reproduce (p.20a-23). He demonstrates how well students reproduce the passages, in what amount of detail. What elements are remembered? Omitted? What section of the passages are they in (i.e., beginning, middle or end)? Much like my friend had suggested to me when constructing my essay, the extremities draw the most attention. It is a tried and true pattern of organization that we come back to in the written form. In Wees experiments, the students seemed to recall more details about the beginning and the end of the passages. English Language Learning students showed the same pattern but with less details (p. 21). So it is either that the mind focuses more on the beginning and the end, or we tend to structure texts that invite the reader to focus more on the beginning and the end.

This aspect of the thesis spoke to me given that my own research deals with form. While I am not an expert in the literary form, I appreciate the power that words can have on us. They can shape and transform (literally, ‘change the form’ of) the world as we understand it. Particularly when dealing with language as a social practice (Gee, 2004), language can become a constitutive tool to reaffirm, alter or reclaim ideas. But form is not only about words. In education, we have long privileged the written form as a means of transferring knowledge. I understand form as going beyond text, specifically in artistic visual, performative and aural form. It would be interesting to reproduce Wees’ experiment with additional interactions, or representations of the passages. Technology today affords us greater opportunities to play with form and the presentation of content in the classroom. For instance, might a visual or video representation change how students remember the text on tracing circles? Might musical sound- scaping affect how students connect the random sentences, or report Mark Twain’s passage? Might miming the story change how students recall and reproduce the text on the fishing rod? Artistic form is a way to infuse meaning and emotion in the text (Barone & Eisner, 1997). And, as my writer friend suggested earlier on, form matters! As Wees demonstrates in one experiment (Presentations #6 and #7), placing the end of the story at the beginning, or altering the form of the fishing rod story so as to blur its determination produces less clear results, less details, and shorter reproductions (p. 52-54). The students try to find a connecting thread in the passage, but it is harder for them to justify certain pieces of the text (like Jimmy’s sudden idea to tie a rock to his line) when the pieces are ‘out of place.’ In another experiment (Presentation #8), the students are offered a reading of Jimmy’s fishing rod story in one sentence meaning that the connectors and punctuation that mark the text for meaning are removed. Again, with the form altered, the students struggle to make sense of the text. In this particular experiment the number of majors errors rose from 4% (Presentation #1, p. 16, in which the text is marked with punctuation and connector words) to 34% (p. 58)!

This brings me to the final point I would like to make: finding meaning creates a path to learning. Interestingly, in the experiment where students are given a set of dangling sentences (Presentation #4, p. 39) taken from Mark Twain’s “Sketches New and Old”, although the story is indeterminate, the students look for strong emotional or moral connections to the story (68%). In essence, the students are searching for meaning, even where there is none. They create connections and look for directionality in the events outlined in the Mark Twain passage. When did the old man fall and injure himself? How is that connected to his mother in law? How she died? How her possessions were lost in a fire? What about the man’s regular walks into town? The students try to sort through all these events to help them recall the text. When the students cannot make sense of the passage, they complete the picture. It is a means of understanding and learning the story in the passage. This reminds me of a story that my writer friend shared with me about Stanley Fish, the American literary theorist. While teaching a class, Stanley Fish wrote the names of five authors to read for the following week’s assignment on the board:

Jacobs-Rosenbaum Levin Thorne Hayes Ohman (?)

The students left and the next class came in. As an experiment, Stanley Fish told the students that these words on the board were a religious poem and asked them to interpret it. The students came up with the wildest theories: one student interpreted the form of the poem to represent the shape of a cross or an altar, another suggested the first line referred to Jacob’s ascent to Heaven via a rose tree (i.e., a rosenbaum), another alluded to the word Thorne as a reference to the crown of thorn worn by Jesus, etc. In short, this story illustrates that readers add their own meaning to text. This is very much what the students in Wees’ experiment demonstrated with the set of 14 random sentences (Experiment # 3). The students generated meaning in two ways: they used sequential experience to recall the sentences and they created relations between the sentences. As Wees surmises, “[b]y the introduction of relations between sentences, the students seem to have shown that even in such miscellaneous material as this, they see form.” (p. 37). According to reader response theory (Rosenblatt, 1985), text is inextricably tied to the reader by the effect it produces on them (Tompkins, 1981). Rosenblatt drew on Bentley and Dewey’s theory of transaction in education, which suggests that any kind of exchange is an active engagement between two parties who may draw on their experiential knowledge to make sense of what they are taking part in. For Rosenblatt, this applies to reading as well. The reader becomes the agent interpreting the text via their own personal and cultural experiences. Specifically, they “draw on past linguistic and life experience, certain concepts, certain sensuous experiences, certain images of things, people, actions, and scenes as well as personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment, and a particular physical condition” (Rosenblatt, 1985, p. 30). Reader response theory privileges the role of the reader in making meaning during the act of reading. This is in essence what happens to the students in Wees experiment, in order to recall the text they create links and story the sentences together.

Wee's designed a set of ingenious experiments to measure and test the effect of form on students’ reproductions of texts. His work suggests that “story value” (p. 62) sets in motion the cogs of inquiry-based learning. Storying the texts is a way to make them more engaging for the students and determination fosters curiosity and inquiry. Wees showed great foresight in his work. Today inquiry-based learning is a staple of education in Ontario (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). Playing with the relational nature of the content through form is also a powerful way of foregrounding information for students. What is more, altering form can enhance students’ engagement with the material, incite an emotional connection and encourage retention, possibly “freeing” the content to be used elsewhere. Today, in education, arts-based methods of teaching and research are pursuing work in this area (Taylor, 2008). Ultimately, for students, finding meaning is a necessary part of the act of learning. To engage with the material in meaningful ways, they need to draw on their individual knowledge and experience. When students are able to bring this kind knowledge to the learning activity, and filter it through the form of presentation a teacher provides, it may well help them sort through content in a way that they can later reproduce it when they need it.


Barone, T., & Eisner, E. (1997). Arts-based educational research. In G. C. J. Green, & P. Elimore (Eds.), Complementary methods for research in education (pp. 75-116). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York : Seabury Press. Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2013). Inquiry-based learning. Ottawa: Queen’s Publisher. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_InquiryBased.pdf Taylor, M. C. (2008). Arts‐based Approaches to Inquiry in Language Education. In N. Hornberger (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education (pp. 3437-3448). New York: Springer. Rosenblatt, L. M. (1985). The transactional theory of the literary work: Implication for research. In C.R. Cooper (Ed.), Researching response to literature and the teaching of literature: Points of departure (pp. 33-53). Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex. Tompkins, J. P. (1981). Reader-response criticism: From formalism to post-structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Wees, W. R. (1971). Nobody can teach anyone anything. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.

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