All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


13 August 2011

Big Thinking, Little Thinking

There's been a lot of commenting recently on a NYT opinion piece by Virginia Heffernan. (See these posts at Joanne's and Rachel's sites, respectively. Cedar Riener's post at Rachel's site is particularly interesting and worth reading.)

The piece is, essentially, Ms. Heffernan's endorsement of an argument that is made by Cathy Davidson in her book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, which I freely admit that I have not read. I also admit that I should read it before making this blog post, but I have a lot of things I have to read this weekend and I just don't have time for the book. I am thus going to rely on Ms. Heffernan's synopsis of Ms. Davidson's arguments. The argument seems to go like this, as best I can tell. It's hard because I'm having to create what I think are some of the implied premises.

1. It is not knowable what sorts of careers our society's children will have because the technological and economic landscape can be expected to change quite quickly.

2. Any given educational approach or method is only going to be best-suited for some particular set of jobs and/or activities; apprentice systems might be best for trades, while collaborative activities might be better for certain types of businessmen.

3. From 1 and 2, we cannot know what sort of educational approach or method will be best-suited to the jobs/economic activities that children will have in the future.

4. Teachers have, in the past, assigned a certain type of solitary, inward-looking work, typified by the "term paper".

5. Modern students write terrible term papers.

6. Modern students write very elegant, insightful, and persuasive blog posts. They also demonstrate a great deal of intellectual agility and originality in their collaborative, digital work.

7. From 3 and 4, teachers do not know that the "term paper" teaching in which they are engaged is in fact the teaching best-suited to their students' futures.

8. From 5, 6, and 7, it seems likely that digitally-oriented, collaborative work can't be ruled out as a form of teaching that isn't best for students' futures, and at the very least, it seems like it can obviously function as a way to practice certain important skills.

9. From 8, we should re-orient teaching to de-emphasize things like term papers, and emphasize things like blog posts and digital media creation/criticism.

So like I said, that's the argument. I'm being as charitable as I can be, but obviously it's got some holes in it. For instance, 9 and 3 seem to to be contraries (thought probably not contradictories), because if we have reason to think a course of action is the best one, and if it is, then it seems we can know what the best course of action is. There's also the inexplicable move from "students enjoy/demonstrate skills while doing X" to "X is probably a good way to teach", that seems to rely on some form of "If X is an easy way to teach, then it's a good way to teach."

Some of these problems might be Davidson's fault -- she's an English professor, not a philosopher. But I'm willing to bet that most of it is just Heffernan's being sloppy.

Still, I didn't write this post just to cast aspersions. I wanted to talk about why I think that the discussion that Heffernan is attempting to have in her piece is profoundly misguided. I think that the arguments presented rest on the idea that literary thinking, skill at writing, and all the other wonderful things we try to teach students, is fundamentally the same whether they are writing a blog post or writing a term paper. In other words, the skills that are being taught are the same, and what changes is the way in which they are acquired.

Now this might, at first blush, seem to be contraindicated by Heffernan's own words:

The new classroom should teach the huge array of complex skills that come under the heading of digital literacy. And it should make students accountable on the Web, where they should regularly be aiming, from grade-school on, to contribute to a wide range of wiki projects.

She expressly says that it's an entirely different set of skills, whereas I'm saying that she believes that they are essentially the same skills. Clearly, the burden is on me to demonstrate that I'm not just putting words into her mouth. I think that she and I are using the word "skills" in two different ways, here. She is using "skills" in a narrow, precise sense: the skill of putting together a Quicktime Video, for instance, or the skill of composing a jingle. I am using "skill" in a much broader sense -- as referring to certain types of general aptitudes: argument, logic, rhetorical persuasion, grammar, and so forth. When I talk about skills, I am talking about the sorts of things that are contrasted in this sentence:

After studying the matter, Ms. Davidson concluded, “Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”

The "skills" here are putting together an elegant sentence, being persuasive in writing, having original ideas, mastering grammar, etc. And the same skills that are not demonstrated in term papers are being demonstrated in the "digitial media" work that is under discussion.

So that's why I think that this argument is, fundamentally, one about how we should go about teaching some one, important set of skills.

I just happen to also think that it's a mistake to think that term papers and blog posts (a term I use as shorthand for a whole range of digital work of the kind argued for in the article) are teaching the same skills.

Forgive me while I switch into analogy mode for a second. I find this a very persuasive way to make points.

Term papers don't teach grammar and writing, any more than marathon training teaches you how to move while remaining upright. True, marathon training is a type of moving while remaining upright, but it's a very specialized type, and you can't really engage in it until you've mastered the basics of walking and running. And once you do, it's an entirely different kind of movement. And it's not just learning how to perform some repeated movement, but how to approach the entire race: running twenty some-odd miles is a single action, and it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In marathon training, you don't learn to run, but how to run a really long distance. In this way, marathon training is imparting a fundamentally different skill than, say, training for the 100 meter dash.

Anyone who tries to teach someone to run by teaching them how to run a marathon is asking for trouble. First you learn to walk, then you learn to run a few meters. Then once you've got that down, you can start learning the intricacies of sprinting, or the intricacies of long-distance running. But if you can't run to begin with, well, there's no point in more specialized training.

There are similar points to be made about writing. Before you can write a term paper, or even a decent blog post, you have to have command of the rules of grammar; you have to understand what it means to put a single idea down as a sentence. That students are (supposedly) able to do this in blog posts (again, I'm using that term as a proxy for a whole host of performances) is evidence that the students have mastered the basics.

But writing a term paper isn't about mastering the basics. If writing a sentence is about getting a thought down on paper (and I think it is), it's about getting a very small thought down on paper. Students in their early years learn to write things like "I enjoyed going to Disneyland" or "The leaf is green." These are small thoughts.

Learning to write, say, a two or three paragraph essay/blog post is learning to write a medium-sized thought. But the important thing about the project isn't learning to write the thought -- if you can write the sentence, you can write the essay. The important thing about the shorter project is that you're learning to have the thought. The writing is the easy part; it's the thinking that's hard.

That students write great blog posts, or that they can put together great five-minute satire, tells us two things: (1) They've got the basic process of translating thought into media down; (2) They've got pretty good skills at having medium-sized thoughts.

Term papers, on the other hand, are exercises in BIG thinking. A twenty-page paper requires that a student have an extended thought -- one that requires twenty pages. A fifty-page paper requires an even bigger thought. And a book requires a goddamn lot of thinking: the book itself is a record of the very, very, very large idea that the author possessed.

But if students aren't any good at big thinking, then when they are asked to write a term paper, they're going to crash and burn. Even their grammar will be awful. This is to be expected: when you ask someone who can run 100 meters to run a marathon, they become unable to even so much as stand up after a while, let alone walk, let alone run the 100 meters that they've been able to do so well before.

So term papers are really exercises not in writing, but in thinking. They are demonstrations of the ability to think an extended thought -- an argument that has more than two premises, or that synthesizes more than a handful of evidential propositions. Big thoughts are hard; they are conglomerations of propositions and speculations held together by the laws of logic and evidence.

That Ms. Davidson's students write terrible term papers doesn't mean that the term paper is a bad teaching tool; it means that the students don't have the capacity yet for thinking that sort of big thought.

And they aren't going to get it writing blog posts. They're only going to get it by having a teacher walk them through the process of liking their thoughts together in ever-larger assemblages. They're only going to acquire that skill through practice and instruction in that particular skill.

Davidson (or Heffernan) isn't really arguing that we should teach the same skills with different methods; that's just what they think they're arguing for. What they're really arguing is that we don't train marathon runners, that we become a nation of intellectual sprinters, content with our short little bursts of clever, well-formed prose.

Which may well be right; that might be the best course of action. Maybe we should stop trying to think big, extended thoughts and focus on the fast, the punchy. But what we are presented with is not an argument for that course of action, but a mere proclamation that we should stick with sprinting, since we seem to be good at it.

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