Sunday, October 25, 2015

On Reading and Writing

I teach grade 12 university-level philosophy, and I teach it as a university prep-course. So we read primary sources, and we write essays longer and more complex than the standard five paragraphs. And then I brace myself for the complaints.

Why do we have to read about other philosophers? Why can’t we just explore our own philosophy?

I heard this one in art courses too, back when I actually taught art: “Why can’t we just discover our own style?” And I don’t just get it from the students but from parents too. “School should be about self-discovery,” they argue. “These other people are mainly dead, anyway. They don’t matter any more.” And then the real problem surfaces: “This is too hard for them. I can barely read it!”

I answer this the same way every year. First of all, I acknowledge that reading primary sources is the hardest thing many of them have ever been asked to do in their lives of Wikipedia-driven research methods, skimming, and cutting corners. Most textbooks are even summaries of summaries with lots of sub-headings and pictures and cartoons to allow weaker readers to decipher meaning from a variety of cues. Sometimes they're so simplified, they're devoid of real meaning. And here I am with the nerve to cruelly hit them with black text on a white background full of big words, sometimes olden-day words, and long, complicated sentences. These aren’t books they’re given, but just pieces of essays: a bit of Mill, some Thoreau, a dash of Aristotle.... And they’re assigned after reading several bits of essays and discussing what they mean together as a class. We take baby steps but all within one semester - the one semester that's most vital for university admittance.

I give them a strategy: Slow down! Stop at the end of every sentence and write down the main idea in your own words AND what you think about it. Is he on to something, or is there a problem with this line of reasoning? Then after a couple days, I give them my cheat sheet on the reading with the main idea of each section in my own words, in point form, with page numbers. If they couldn’t wade through this first reading successfully, they had a back-up. Baby steps.

But I do insist then learn to read for real. Why? Because the more they tackle difficult texts, the better they'll get at it. It opens avenues for understanding ideas that would have previously been inaccessible. Once they get it, once they see that they CAN struggle through a text and understand it on their own (and learn that it IS a struggle), then they can attack any reading material.

And I insist they learn about other philosophies before discovering their own theories. This raises a good Plato vs Aristotle debate. Plato suggests knowledge is inside us to be brought forth through contemplation and a good teacher who can ask the right questions and turn our eye in the right direction, while Aristotle would have us go out into the world to explore and experiment and put ideas together in a new way that’s our own. The schools are leaning more and more towards Plato’s ideal, but I’m firmly in the Aristotle camp.

My argument is a bit of a Pascal’s wager focusing on the possibility of error because we really don't know what's best. If it’s actually correct that we learn more from exploring past ideas, and we don’t do that with students, then students have lost the chance to learn that content since they’re unlikely to pick it up on their own. But if it’s actually correct that we learn more through questioning our own thoughts, and we keep trying to explore dead people's theories anyway, then we haven’t harmed anything in the process. Students can still sit and think after we’ve shown them other people’s ideas.

What's curious to me is how often they think that getting my help with a reading is cheating. I ask, "How do you think you best learn without help from someone who's learned this before?" Somewhere they've gotten the idea that they should be able to just know the answers, or find them themselves online, but they shouldn't have to ask any questions. I tell them I'm looking for a course on Heidegger right now because I'm stuck in the readings, and no online summary can help. I need a real live person to answer specific questions about specific lines. That's how we develop an understanding of a new topic. I believe that if you can do everything you attempt with ease, then you're not challenging yourself enough.

Furthermore, without the basics, many students run into issues that have been discussed for centuries. Learning about previous arguments gives them a head start towards developing better ideas. Most of us entering a new field don't know what we don't know; we don't recognize our weaknesses until we start to explore the strong ideas passed down and debated and discussed and tweaked for millennia. And the reality is, some people don’t have many ideas to share. They're a blank slate. They need a starting point, typically something they can argue against to get them really thinking.

And there's always the ability to impress others with a well-timed quote from a famous philosopher thrown into a conversation that makes people look at you a little bit differently.

And then we get to their own ideas.

Can you sign my drop form?

A chunk of the class drops out before the summary of that first reading is due. They didn't expect to have to read and think. It's too hard. And I worry about their ability to manage in university. But that raises the question of whether it’s better to give them easy work so they have high marks to get in to university, or to give them challenging work so they can be more successful once they're already in university where failing a course means throwing money down the drain. If they can't get into university in the first place, then having the skills that would have been useful there are wasted, right? And this is an elective course; shouldn’t it be just for fun?

Can't it be fun and intellectually demanding? Aren't they the same thing?!

Ideally, we’d be challenging students significantly in grade 10 - the last year that isn't scrutinized by university entrance committees. That should be the year of rigour when we really push reading and writing skills, ensure a strong knowledge of grammar and syntax, and demand clearly cited primary sources. But it’s pretty inconsistent because, as a profession, we don’t share the same learning goals. Many teachers believe grammar comes to us as we read and doesn’t need to be formally taught, and then I have to explain principal clauses to my grade 12s.

And it's hard to watch students struggle. It's hard to be the one who keeps pushing them to keep trying something that's difficult. Despite my course getting a little easier year after year, and despite using similar assignments, students are stressed out as never before. They need to skim and toss off a bit of writing quickly because they have so many other obligations in their lives. They have to work in order to afford university, and they need to be involved with many activities because it looks good on their applications. On top of that, they take 8 courses in a year that we encourage only 6. They feel like they'll be behind if they take a 5th year, so they cram too many courses into their last year rather than spread them out. I tell my 10s to take 8 courses in grades 9 and 10, then 6 each in 11, 12, and 5th year. Take the most courses possible; it's the last chance to take advantage of free education! But they're in too much of a hurry for that nonsense. It's all a huge competition, and there's a scarcity of rewards at the end.

I’ve known students who had 80s and 90s in high school, then actually failed classes in university. These are bright, hard-working students who were ill prepared. And that discovery costs them real cash dollars. This is the wall they hit due to grade inflation: 80s are the new 60s. My exams are a little easier every year because I do bow slightly to parental pressure. I’m teaching less depth, marking easier, and the grades show it. If my average were in the high 60s, like everyone's were fifteen years ago, then I wouldn't have a course to teach. Nobody would take it because they need high marks for university. But kids who might have had 60s and taken a different road a decade ago, are going to university with 80s and ending up on academic probation. That can be an expensive lesson for them, and it's not really their lesson to learn.

Some universities are reporting rising failure rates and professors offer solutions not dissimilar to my own:
"25% of high school students with A-averages in high school face being kicked out of universities in first year . . . We need to engage students by making everything more difficult . . . force students to think about things, to learn instead of memorizing."
One Trent University prof, Alan Slavin, noted a dramatic failure rate increase in his own classes, and, after some research, found it's mainly "an Ontario thing":
"Professor James Côté and co-author, Anton Allahar, in their recent book Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, blame a general student disengagement with learning as source of the problem. However, most of the students I see are not so much disengaged as poorly trained for university expectations. Students’ ability to do analysis and synthesis seems to have been replaced by rote memorization and regurgitation in both the sciences and the humanities. . . . There is always a certain amount of material that must be memorized, but knowledge of facts makes up only a small component of one’s learning. More important is the ability to relate these facts in new ways, to see them in a new light, and to bring quite disparate ideas together to solve new problems or create new forms of art. This ability to analyze and synthesize is what makes good scientists, writers, philosophers and artists. It is the ability needed to drive a knowledge-based economy."
Can't it be both student disengagement and poor training? But, from what I see, it's not so much disengagement from the subject matter as from the requirement to do the work of thinking and analyzing the material. That's hard and time consuming, largely because it so new. Slavin goes on to lament that a third of students don't hand in assignments or don't read feedback on assignments to learn where they've gone wrong. They're just jumping through the hoops instead of trying to learn something useful. He blames this on changes to Ontario curriculum over the past twenty years that have made it much more content-heavy such that, from grade 1, time isn't spend in learning to understand concepts; there's only time to memorize.

Why essays? We should just learn the ideas and make posters about them. Why do we have to follow a format? What are in-text citations anyway? Other teachers are okay if we just put a list of urls at the end. Teachers shouldn't have set expectations, but should change their rubrics based on what each student can do.

Learning how to write within a consistent format is like learning the rules of a game in phys ed. We could let people determine their own rules and make up their own games, but we’ve established some useful techniques already that have been working for us. We offer some variations from time to time, but the basics are useful to follow. If we all understand the rules, then we can all play together, and people from all over the world can join in.

Over centuries, we've figured out a way to convey information in a clear manner such that, if everyone follows the general structure, we'll all be able to understand one another. If writing is clear, coherent, and precise, then we can discuss each other's ideas unhampered by questionable metaphors and illustrations. A poster or story or stream of consciousness piece or interpretive dance just can't clarify ideas in a focused way like an essay can. There is still room for creativity in an essay, but it's in the ideas themselves, not in a collage on the title page sewn to the essay with yarn. I fear that leaning on other media is a fool's game of hiding weak ideas.

When papers are written clearly, with flawless grammar and spelling, and a subtly demarcated format, then the style of communication can fall into the background, paving a road for the ideas to travel. Like learning formal theory in art, some people have all the elements of design IN them. They can just sit down and create things that are appealing aesthetically and interesting. The rest of us need to learn some guidelines, sit with them, and get them under our skin by using them over and over before we can take off from there.  Unfortunately it's been my experience that the extent to which people believe they can just write free-form in a way that’s coherent to others has no correlation to how good they are at it.

Back in the old school days, we learned how to cite sources using index cards and an assignment that sent us all to the public library when we were in grade four. I still have that project on Cats in Ancient Egypt. It was exciting to be dropped off on a Saturday and meet up with others there to look up books without a teacher or parent watching over us. And citing sources was an expectation of every grade after until, by high school, it was second nature. Now, because there's not the space for this in earlier grades, it's a hardship in high school. But having one consistent way of clarifying where information was found is necessary for readers. And MLA (or Chicago or APA) is the way we've decided on as a group. We all just have to get with the program on this one.

Citing sources properly, with all the necessary information, has never been more important as it is with internet research. If it's not clear who wrote an article, or if their name is "squeekee478," then it could be a questionable source. Scouting around a website, following the "About" link and the "Contact Us" link, is an imperative part of good research skills in this century.

Without set standards and expectations to work towards, we're not really teaching. I can encourage a student to throw a ball over and over that never hits the side of the barn. Without the goal of establishing the best technique, and getting students to work to master closer and closer approximations to the target behaviour, I'd just be watching random unfocused attempts. The attempts might get them closer to the target eventually by sheer chance, but the established techniques could get them there faster and with greater precision. Unpacked, what I hear some students saying is, "I should never be evaluated on something I’m not naturally good at without effort." But then we're not evaluating what was learned. (Keep in mind an evaluation of an essay is JUST an evaluation of how well you write not on who you are or your value in this world.)

These are standards that can get worn down with every complaint. What keeps me firmly rooted is the occasional student who has come back from university to visit and to tell me that this course really helped them have a step up. They watched others struggle with a 4-page essay, and thought, "Four pages? That's nothing!" I tell parents and students that, but they're dubious.

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