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.


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