Synthesizing and Pelletizing

The grade 12 students in my school’s IB program have just finished their 4,000-word Extended Essays, and their supervisors, including me, have held the viva voce sessions with our individual essayists that the program mandates. While a part of the contemporary purpose of the viva voce[1] should be congratulatory, the traditional purpose of this exercise, going back to the Middle Ages, is mainly to establish that a student really understands what he has learned[2]. The EE supervisor, in the course of a student’s work on the EE, can often size this up with partial effectiveness by discussions during the production of the essay; but there is nothing that is so good at testing the student’s power of synthesis and grip on the material synthesized as a spontaneous probing discussion at the end.

The viva voce is therefore a special case of spoken discourse in its educative aspect. By contrast, as I have argued in these postings, simple knowledge-as-recognition, without understanding, is thin stuff. A good example is Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon showing a man pointing at a dog and talking. The dog is named Ginger, for the dialogue balloon says, “Blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah…” Our aim as teachers should be to help students cut back the blahs and fill in the blanks, and we are not doing that if we don’t check for understanding by questioning our students in our live voices.

E-voices won’t do because they cannot pick up the strands of a student’s thinking and handle them in real time. There is also something more compelling in a live human being than in a screen or a squawk box (or there should be: consider Ferris Bueller’s history teacher as a counter-example). But such considerations won’t stop “education” companies from trying to insinuate their gadgets and labor-saving devices in places that should be occupied only by living beings. The key question of such companies is not “How can we give students an education?” but “How are you going to monetize those users?” There will be pressure to recognize machine-gradable or algorithmically gradable learning as the chief kind, but it must be resisted. The key counter-question to be asked by believers in education as a philanthropic enterprise is “Why don’t you get out and stay out?”

But there is another problem that big assignments pose: how to manage something requiring large-scale synthesis. Ideally the EE supervisor and the student meet a number of times to consider how to make disparate material hang together, how to draw an idea out of a collection, how to test the idea by submitting it to the control of facts and questions, and how to produce coherent results. I have heard that some people handle their EE’s using “scaffolding” whose product is from a template and not just the student’s mind. While that is unfortunate, it at least takes the student through some steps leading to a large-scale production.

There should ideally have been some preceding exposure to work that is similar in kind if not necessarily in extent and depth. Our own school sets something in Grade 10 that we call a “Mini-EE”, which is due in Mr. Z’s box at about the same time that the actual EE’s are due to be turned in to the supervisor. My own experience confirms the value of a double pass-through. I used to set research papers for my students in two successive years at one school where I had my students for all four years. The first time through was a “learning experience,” as we say: it was only on the second try that most students produced creditable work.

They certainly won’t learn to manage something big if their only experience of being examined is the scourge of Scantron or the miasma of multiple choice. Such “tools” ensure that learning is pelletized, and they work against learning with continuity or context. Garret Keizer’s experience is instructive. In his book Getting Schooled, he reports his effort to get students to write a research paper. The exigencies of his teaching ordained that it must be taught in an inadequate time, though he and the tutors did their best to communicate what was needed and to shepherd their students along.

To his chagrin, he discovered that some of his students did not use his required checklist of things to do, or they checked items as done that they had not in fact done at all. Others handed in papers late or not at all. But he was most deeply troubled by the number of students who simply ignored everything he told them in his editing comments and conferences. They seemed not to understand the difference between a second draft and a reprint.

They took their interaction with the teacher to be of no account, and they took their first production as final, not tentative. Of course, that is the way it is with pelletized learning leading to pelletized productions. For students who have spent ten years in discourse like C B D C A B, or who hear the teacher’s words as blah blah blah, what else can one expect?

[1] Latin for ‘live voice’

[2] In our age of copy-and-paste it can also smoke out plagiarism.



The Bubble Reputation

I recently interviewed an applicant for admission to my alma mater. As always when the candidate is highly intelligent and engaged, this was a fascinating exercise. My applicant hopes to study astrophysics and notes that the student/faculty ratio in that department is about 3/2. One of the attractions she sees in such a favorable ratio is the opportunity she will have to work closely with her teachers and mentors. With that ratio, she certainly won’t be able to dodge them!—not even on days when she is sleepy.

Her comment reminded me of what I had heard about the physicist I. I. Rabi, who often taught by having chalk talks and coffee with colleagues and students in Pupin Hall. These talks were said to be formative by those who attended. Interestingly, my applicant went further along this line of thinking when I asked her what is most likely to lead to a successful course.

She said, ‘a teacher who is interesting and makes the subject interesting.’ She added that it helps when students have a generally positive attitude towards the teacher. I guess that if she is successfully studying AP physics and math, this same teacher must lay down and uphold a high standard of work. As a teacher I would add to the mix a readiness to meet a halfway interesting teacher halfway. It would also help that the interactions between such students and teachers took place at schools that support genuine teaching and learning.

That is not what is happening in schools that have to assume the position of recipients of money from programs like RAce to the Top, or other mandates for mastery or university readiness. My applicant is going to be ready for university and scientific work with leaders in her field because she has been made ready through her efforts to work with engaging teachers on material that lays the groundwork in knowledge, skill and understanding that she will need in university. She will not be made ready by being turned into an exam weenie who sacrifices the Big Three for ‘test-taking skills’.

For that is what happens when schools are sized up using the wrong kinds of test. Studies have been done showing what the right kinds are, and they have shown why the wrong kinds are wrong. (There is also the educational experience of the human race, in case something were wanted to supplement quantitative methods.) You won’t need three guesses to tell which category the RAT and Common Core tests fall under.

But there is another problem—one discussed by Garret Keizer in his book Getting Schooled. This is the tendency of large mandatory programs and systems to suffocate the teaching they ostensibly ‘measure’, and its effects extend beyond just high-power programs.  Keizer’s wife and daughter are special-education teachers who labor under crushing bureaucratic burdens that almost guarantee their students will not have their special needs met.[1] These include shape-shifting  ‘programs’ and ‘software’ that ‘monitor’ teachers, provoking Keizer to assert that the two top trends in public education are

‘the rate at which pedagogical conundrums are being replaced by technological ones,’ and

‘the alarming rate at which educators are losing their ability to tell the two apart.’

What educationists should be doing is seeking to provide the training and working conditions in which good-quality teachers are supported in their efforts to help students like my applicant become really ready for university—that is, really ready to think, write and act, not just to bubble.

[1] See pp. 189 – 190 of his book.



Reading Flannery O’Connor aloud is wonderful because her stories almost read themselves—almost, but not quite, for the reader has his job of understanding to manage, and getting the timing and cadences right. It is sometimes easy to miss the point of her writing. She knew it and admitted it, sometimes sardonically and sometimes slyly, as when she said her story “Good Country People” is about a “lady Ph. D. who has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman she is trying to seduce.” I created a stir at a reading group one time by reading aloud her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which a family and their cat Pitti Sing take a drive trip in which they end up being methodically shot one by one by a killer called the Misfit. After I finished the room lit up with discussion.

That can happen with students, too. One time I was conducting a discussion of her story “Revelation” and asked whether it was right for the Ugly Girl to throw her book at Mrs. Turpin and try to strangle her in the doctor’s waiting room. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, by how many of them said yes. An excellent discussion ensued. Another time I read aloud the ending of “The Enduring Chill” with its hero lying weakened to motionlessness by disease and terrified as he is pursued by his implacable adversary—the Holy Ghost. Reading the last paragraph aloud took some care, but the result was entirely satisfactory: I could hear breaths exhaled after I finished the last sentence.

Yeats is also good to read aloud. I have had excellent results with “Lapis Lazuli” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”—one of them upbeat, the other gloomy. His emblematic poem “The Second Coming” is a tougher go, but I was assisted by Mother Nature one time while reading it in South Africa. That part of the country has the most lightning strikes of anyplace in the world, or so I have been told. One afternoon the clouds were building as I started to read. I got to “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” As I finished that couplet a tremendous thunderclap broke over the school, and for the only time ever, the rough beast’s slouching towards Bethlehem was an anticlimax.

All this reading illustrates the truth that our live voices, which are our live presences in their communicatory aspect, bring something essential to the upbringing of children, including big ones. A recent study shows that reading aloud to young people even up to the age of eleven was associated with their decision to read more on their own. No benefit was shown for reading to teen-agers, but I guess that if they are more receptive to the printed word they will be more receptive to the spoken word too. And the receptivity of both ages is more strongly anchored in shared humanity, which children value; for the study shows that they regarded as “special” the time they shared with a grownup who read to them.  It doesn’t seem farfetched to suppose that the experience of such comforting time is cast forward at least to some extent into subsequent reading time.

It should then be obvious why the same results will not obtain when children are read to by screens and machines, whether set up by zealous mechanist parents or by profiteering “education” companies. Both are in the grip of the false doctrine that education is a process performed on children as feeding is performed on a henhouse of battery chickens.