Subject Matter Universals – Introduction to Theory, Principles, and Practice

Subject matter is derived from (a) nature; (b) discovery, invention, research, and development; and (c) reflection, belief, and imagination.

Just reading about subject matter or studying it in order to memorize it does not reveal its true critical nature. Furthermore, memorizing subject matter is not the same as comprehending. Memorization provides no reasoning foundation to think, read, and write critically. Combining mind grammar with subject matter universals provides the means to practice critical instruction, and its mirror image, critical learning.

Theory of Subject Matter

Subject matter is composed of ideas, concepts, theories, facts, and processes. These elements can be arranged systematically in a critical pattern. This pattern is universal in all thinking and therefore in all subject matter. This subject matter pattern is akin to a biological pattern.

Genetic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) represents an innate biological attribute of humans. A nucleic acid, it carries the structural genetic information in the human cell in the form of a double helix. The double helix provides a pattern for understanding how the body works. Genetic DNA provides a way to investigate medical and associated phenomena in all animals.

Subject matter DNA represents an innate mental attribute of humans. “The DNA in Subject Matter DNA stands for Defined Natural Attributes” (Maiorana, 2007, p. 33). These attributes follow the pattern of subject matter objective, activities, and consequences. These attributes, referred to as subject matter universals, are present in all subject matter. Subject matter DNA provides the basis to understand, comprehend, and explain content in all disciplines.

Principles of Subject Matter

• All subject matter topics have an end-in-view, have some effect, carry some meaning, are of importance, serve some purpose, or fill some function. These and similar terms represent a subject matter objective.

• All subject matter topics have related activities that provide the means to achieve or realize the subject matter objective.

• All subject matter topics have consequences. They are the result of achieving a subject matter objective through related activities. Consequences can be good, bad, or occur right away or sometime in the future.

Four Defined Natural and Universal Attributes of Subject Matter

The four defined natural attributes of subject matter are (1) objective, (2) activities, (3) resources, and (4) consequences.

(1) A subject matter objective is the end-in-view, effect, meaning, importance, purpose, or function of the subject matter topic at hand.

(2) Subject matter activities are the processes, means, or causes used to achieve the subject matter objective. Activities can be natural (breathing), mental (deciding what to do), and physical (walking).

(3) Resources are the persons, places, things, and ideas needed to carry out the necessary activities.

Resources include any one or more of these categories: elemental, human, social, institutional, economic, and technological.

(4) Consequences are what can happen when the subject matter is achieved (realized) or not achieved (not realized). Consequences can be positive, negative, short term, and long term.

When arranged in a critical pattern based on mind grammar, these attributes provide the basis to understand, comprehend, and explain subject matter i n whatever form it is encountered and in all disciplines.  The critical pattern is  called a subject matter display.

The Practice of Subject Matter Universals

An Example of a Mind Grammar-Based Subject Matter Display

We are constrained by nature to write thoughts in sequence. We can overcome this restraint by connecting and integrating the subject matter universals in a display that represents a critical multi-dimensional view of subject matter, one that reveals its true dynamic nature.  Compare the following display to the rote-iinducing, one-dimensional, and static view that serialism represents when engaging subject matter in classrooms and textbooks.

Title: A Four-Stage MG2 Subject Matter Display of an Immunization Experiment

(1)What was the end-in-view of the immunization experiment? (What was the objective?)
o The end-in-view of the immunization experiment was to determine if a boy could be protected from smallpox disease.

(2)What activities took place during the experiment?
o milkmaid’s hands are infected with cowpox
o boy is inoculated with pus taken from the milkmaid’s cowpox pustules
o boy becomes ill with a mild case of cowpox
o boy recovers several days later
o later on, the boy is inoculated with scabs taken from a smallpox patient
o no smallpox disease occurs in the boy

(3) Consequences of the Immunization Experiment

Positive:(1) Boy did not get smallpox, (2) Human species and their domestic animals gained the protection of immunization.

Negative: (1) Boy was made to become ill, (2) The boy was most likely not aware of the danger to which he was subjected. Therefore, he was an unwitting participant, (3) Dr. Jenner could not be certain of the outcome of his experiment; the boy could have died oF smallpox disease.

(4) Resource Bank (What persons, places, things, and ideas were used?)
o Dr. Jenner                              o cows                      o 8-year old boy
o cowpox pustule                     0 dairymaid            o smallpox patient
o injection instruments               o smallpox scabs

Reference: Desowitz, R. S. (1988). The thorn in the starfish: The immune system and how it works. New York: Norton.  Note: Negative consequences of experiment not included in this book.

Developing Subject Matter Displays

The critically conceived display serves as an outline for classroom assignments, narratives, essays, or a textbook chapter. You do not need to write the chapter in the order of the display. You can write in any order (although, in a textbook chapter, it is a good idea to state the subject matter objective upfront). You can begin and end as you see fit, weaving back and forth among the display’s elements. It is alright to add new material that occurs to you as your chapter unfolds. Just be sure to include all the entries that appear in the display. Here is an example of narrative based on the display shown above.

As an expert in your field, you already possess the knowledge to connect and integrate facts and ideas for topics associated with your discipline. Through use of a subject matter display or its equivalent that you develop yourself, you can arrange your knowledge critically, explicitly, and formally so that you and your readers – faculty and students – can see the true nature of subject matter. A  full discussion of the procedural means to develop subject matter displays can be found in Chapter 4 – Introduction to Critical Learning, in Preparation for Critical Instruction –  How to Explain Subject Matter While Teaching All Learners to Think, Red, and Write Critically (2016)


A Narrative Bassed on a Mind Grammar Subject Matter Display

In the spring of 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner, of Berkeley, England, visited a milk farm. He struck up a conversation with Tess, one of the milkmaids. He noticed that her face was clear of smallpox scars and congratulated her on having escaped the disease. She said she could not get smallpox disease. When he asked why, she replied along the lines of “I can’t get smallpox disease because I’ve already had cowpox disease.”
Tess had contracted cowpox disease from milking the sore udders of cows infected with cow-pox. Such cowpox-induced protection from smallpox disease was well known on dairy farms. That chance conversation between the milkmaid and the doctor led to the worldwide elimination of the deadly smallpox disease. Here is how that came to be.
Dr. Jenner decided to conduct an experiment. The end-i n-view of the experiment was to see if he could protect (immunize) James Phipps, an 8-year-old boy, from smallpox disease. To perform the experiment, Dr. Jenner needed the pus from the hands of a milkmaid with active cowpox pustules on her hands. He also needed instruments with which to scratch and implant the cowpox pus into the boy’s arm. To complete his experiment, he needed a small pox patient with active smallpox pustules.
The experiment involved a number of activities. First, the doctor located Sara Nelmes, a milk-maid whose hands were infected with cowpox. He then inoculated the boy in the arm with pus taken from Sara’s cowpox pustules. The boy became ill with a mild case of cowpox. He recovered a few days later.
After six weeks, the boy was inoculated with pus taken from a smallpox patient. No smallpox disease occurred in the boy. Several months later, the boy was again inoculated with smallpox pus. Again, no smallpox disease occurred inthe boy.
Dr. Jenner’s experiment resulted in these positive consequences. First, vaccination was in-vented. Second, human species and their domestic animals gained the protection of immunization through vaccination. Third, because it was safer, vaccination with cowpox replaced inoculation with smallpox. Fourth, inoculation with smallpox pus became a crime. Fifth, in 1979, a group of international experts stated that the planet Earth was free of smallpox. In 1980 the World Health Organization endorsed their statement.
The experiment had these actual and potential negative consequences. The boy was intentionally made to become ill. He was most likely not aware of the danger to which he was exposed. Therefore, he was an unwitting participant. Dr. Jenner could not be certain of the outcome of his experiment; the boy could have died of smallpox disease.
So there you have it. The true story of how a doctor, a boy, milkmaids, and some cows rescued the world from smallpox disease. *****


For more on writing for critical explanation, see Chapter 8 – Write for Critical Explanation in Preparation for Critical Instruction – How to Explain Subject Matter While Teaching All Learners to Think, Read, and Write Critically (2016).

Use of Subject Matter Displays

Regarding classroom instruction, the critically conceived display becomes the basis for designing student-centered classroom assignments. See Chapter 2 – The Mind Grammar Instructional Set, and Chapter 3 – Mind Grammar Instructional Techniques in, Teach Like the Mind Learns – Instruct So Students Learn to Think, Read, and Write Critically (2017).

Regarding textbook and academic writing, the critically conceived display becomes the means to conceive subject matter critically for the text’s content. The display also serves as the basis for developing end-of-chapter questions and exercises.  See Fixing Instruction (2015)Preparation for Critical Instruction (2016), and Teach Like the Mind Learns (2017) for examples of how this is accomplished.

For more on there use of subject matter displays, see Q&A here.

The Special Bond of Subject Matter Practice Shared By School and College Faculty and Textbook Authors

According to Reynolds [1976 – American textbooks—The first 200 years. Educational Leadership, 33(4), 274–6], 85% of classroom teachers rely on textbooks for subject matter engagement. This creates a special bond of education practice. Critical instruction pedagogy offers a powerful alternative to roteism. By making us of critical instruction pedagogy, authors can have a profound impact on improving teacher effectiveness and student achievement.