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Pointers vs. Painters: What Are We Really Capturing in Writing Scores?

Do you remember the fun you had playing with LEGOs as a child? The multicolored plastic bricks are timeless toys enjoyed generation after generation. But, have you ever closely watched a child building with LEGOs? The process unfolds in one of two ways:

  1. The child thoughtfully selects and places each piece as if following a model that exists within the child’s mind.
  2. The child dumps all the pieces onto the floor and builds a structure in the moment.

I tested this theory by observing neighborhood kids as they collectively decided what to build, such as a fort or a house, and then worked individually to construct the object. At other times, I suggested an object for them to build. Whether they generated the idea on their own or create an object based on my input, there were those children who preferred dumping all of the pieces onto the floor and those who plucked individual pieces from the bag of LEGOs as they were needed.

Dr. David Ludwig is a marriage and family therapist and founding director of The Power of WE: Center for Family and Community Relations at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina (www.thinkwe.com). Dr. Ludwig developed a relational typology whereby he classifies communicators as pointers or painters. When pointers communicate, the first thing out of their mouth is typically the most important, with follow-up statements serving as support for the main idea. He advises families to minimize miscommunication by listening to the first thing the pointer says, focus on that one idea, and ask for clarification or further details. Pointers are like the kids who place each LEGO piece as it is needed. They methodically communicate their point and support it with each statement.

Painters, on the other hand, paint a picture with their speech. Their first words are just the first brush strokes onto the canvas of the conversation, not the main point. They typically will paint a colorful picture with their words and then put forward their main point at the end of their speech. Dr. Ludwig counsels families to invite the painter to paint the whole picture. He suggests that families listen with interest as their painters express themselves. Painters resemble the children who dump out all the pieces as if the act of dumping is a cathartic experience in itself. They eventually may achieve the same goal as the pointers, but do so differently. Dr. Ludwig’s advice has helped thousands of couples and families avoid conflicts due to simple differences in communication styles.

I offer a presentation, Professors Are From Mars, Students Are from Venus: Learning Occurs on Earth, in which I assert that the faculty/student(s) relationship is the most important and powerful force in the learning environment. However, the relationship is hindered by various forms of dysfunction that stem from each party’s very different world. I wondered whether the pointer and painter typology was applicable to student writing. After all, writing is a form of communication; it involves a process of laying out thoughts similar to children placing LEGOs. More importantly, I considered the miscommunication that could occur between students and their professors. I questioned if students’ perceived abilities, at least in part were determined by whether they operated from a pointer or painter disposition. The manner by which students structure their writing has significant consequences, both immediate in terms of grades and lasting in terms of students’ confidence in their writing abilities.

I don’t believe it is a large leap to say that most professors prefer the pointer’s way of communication: making a point and supporting it with statements. This aligns well with the traditional writing format. But what about the painters? They may be communicating the same ideas, just in different ways. They may be painting the picture with their writing and summarizing, or putting the main point, at the end.

Following are two excerpts that address the same topic. One excerpt is the product of a painter’s style of communicating; the other, a pointer’s. Should they be valued differently?

Painter

Pointer

Surface-based thinking is classified as poor thinking because it leads students only to surface outcomes, which are insufficient products for rigorous coursework. Surface learning primarily engages the memory, which is categorized as a lower-level thinking skill, based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of higher-order thinking skills.Conversely, deep-based thinking is considered thinking well because it leads to outcomes that are sufficient for coursework that demands deep learning. Deep learning leads to understanding and is a catalyst for application, analysis, and evaluation, all of which occur at higher stages on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Therefore, a recursive relationship exists between approaches to learning and thinking skills. As students employ surface approaches to learning, they will use lower level thinking skills. As they apply deep approaches to learning they will exercise high-level thinking skills.[Notice that this excerpt first explains, or paints a picture, and then expresses the main point (in bold) near the end.]Click here to view the article from which this excerpt was taken. A recursive relationship exists between approaches to learning and thinking skills.Surface-based thinking is classified as poor thinking because it leads students only to surface outcomes, which are insufficient products for rigorous coursework. Surface learning primarily engages the memory, which is categorized as a lower-level thinking skill, based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of higher-order thinking skills.Conversely, deep-based thinking is considered thinking well because it leads to outcomes that are sufficient for coursework that demands deep learning. Deep learning leads to understanding and is a catalyst for application, analysis and evaluation, all of which occur at higher stages on Bloom’s Taxonomy. As students employ surface approaches to learning, they will use lower level thinking skills. As students apply deep approaches to learning they will exercise higher level thinking skills.[In this excerpt, notice that the main point (in bold) is at the beginning.]Click here to view the article from which this excerpt was taken.

Current tally:

Faculty/Staff — Painters – 41%; Pointer – 8%

Students — Painters – 21%; Pointers – 30%

Since professors typically seek the main point at the beginning of a paper, they may react prematurely to a painter’s work, making judgments before they have finished reading the composition. In essence, they draw conclusions about the student’s writing before considering the entire picture. Is this okay? If so, should we be teaching children that there is only one way to build with LEGOs?

(Please add your response in the comments’ section. If it is not listed at the bottom of this page, then click on “comments” tab next to the date, near the top of the page.)

3 replies
  1. Theresa Drago
    Theresa Drago says:

    Interesting. I am a natural painter who has learned to be a pointer in order to succeed in classes taught by instructors who are pointers. One of my strategies has been to write my papers “backwards”, then put the end at the beginning. A strategy that I have taught to other painters who have been required to be pointers!! And, yes, I dump the legos.

    Reply
    • thewelledu
      thewelledu says:

      I am the same: painter by birth, pointer by conformity :). Though, I have never attempted the backwards writing. My painter proclivity is most evident when I am speaking amongst friends. I notice that I will repeat things in different ways to emphasize my points, as if I am applying deeper layers of paint on a painting to ensure that viewers get my emphasis. When writing, I dump all of my words out on paper and it takes several iterations for me to produce a pointer-style paper.

      Reply
  2. Susie Robertshaw
    Susie Robertshaw says:

    (I wrote this in response to your post on the Learning Assistance listserv, LRNASST-L) Your post shows not only that there is more than one way to get to the end product (the Lego structure or the piece of writing), but also various ways the final product may look (paragraph structure).

    Researchers into the writing process describe the equivalent of dumping Lego pieces onto the floor (free writing, mind dumping, discovery drafts), all types of writer-based prose, written for the writer to gather his/her thoughts, take inventory, with the main point finally emerging after all that writing.)

    The task for the writer and for writing tutors & instructors is to help the writer transform that piece into something more easily followed by a reader: reader-based prose.

    Writers need to understand their own writing process and make adjustments in their own timelines depending on how they compose, revise for content and organization, and then edit for grammar and mechanics. The writer who dumps all the Legos out on the floor may end up needing more time, as she goes through several versions of a house, for example, whereas the other Lego builder has the blueprints already in mind.

    Writing Centers all try to help writers understand the complexity of the writing process and their individual version.

    I like your post and will use it with my peer writing consultants! They mostly plan out their papers before writing, though some need to do lots of free- writing. Many of our student clients bring discovery drafts for review, thinking all they need is comma help rather than the major reconstruction they end up doing. Teachable moments!

    Thanks!

    Susie

    Suzanne Robertshaw
    Tutoring and Writing Coordinator
    1000 Holt Ave. 2613, Rollins College
    Winter Park, Florida 32789 USA
    407 646-2652
    Srobertshaw@rollins.edu
    R-net.rollins.edu/twc & facebook.com/RollinsTJs

    Reply

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