Monday, October 20, 2008

Trouble in the Garden

Back when I used to live in East Dallas, I'd often drive by Stonewall Jackson Elementary school on Mockingbird Lane. It's a fairly nondescript little school, but it sports a terrific garden that's visible from the street. I'd often see folks from the community, as well as the children, puttering around, and I was always amazed at how lovely, inviting, and verdant it looked.

Recently, however, the Dallas Independent School District--in response to its own idiocy concerning budget mismanagement--has decided to curtail this highly successful outdoor learning program despite clear evidence of its success.

Although Mark Painter will still try to maintain the garden after school hours (being paid by the PTA instead of the district) the overall stupidity of this move is indicative of how shallow our current approach to education has become. Experiential learning has been shown to enhance the learning process, especially in science and maths, by connecting students with real-world problems to which they can apply principles and concepts. Despite the fact that American students, especially those in urban areas, are scoring lower than ever on high-stakes exams in the sciences, this seems like the dumbest possible move any school district could make.

For examples of how programs like this work, I suggest looking at the University of California at Davis's Science, Technology and Environmental Literacy Workgroup, or at the Wildercom website developed by James T. Neill, a psychologist and environmental educator from Perth, Australia.

American students continue to be outscored by their counterparts in other countries, as shown in a recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam in science, and they trailed even further in mathematics. For details on the data, see the PowerPoint presentation by Andreas Schleicher, who analyzes the 2006 data in excrutiating--but rather interesting--detail, available on the Alliance for Excellent Education website. Schleicher is the director of PISA and head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Directorate for Education. Further resources are available on the link.

I am certainly in no position to offer a great deal of advice about science teaching, except that I spent years working with kids at the Heard Museum and with the Plano ISD outdoor education effort. But I also love science, and I know how eager children are to understand the natural world. Our inability as a nation to inspire our children to understand scientific principles and seek careers in science will ultimately lead to our own intellectual poverty.

Ill-advised cost-cutting measures like closing down the garden program at Stonewall Jackson are simply going to turn around and bite us in the backside unless the educational bureaucracy starts paying attention to what really works.

Photo: a kitchen garden not unlike the one at Stonewall Jackson, by Jean-Noël Lafargue, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Some Thoughts on Plagiarism . . . and how to avoid the problem in the first place

We live in an age of instant information accessibility. “Answers”—that is, facts, data, information—are only a Google search away. Almost inevitably, most commonly-used search terms lead directly to Wikipedia which, for all its democratic possibilities, is still only an encyclopedia. And encyclopedias are for high school, not for college.

The consequences of instant accessibility include impatience when it comes to refining searches, developing meaningful search strategies, and varying resource use. We’ve imbedded short attention spans into our children, and they are becoming increasingly impatient with research that takes “too long.”

I’m pretty sure that further consequences to the instant access phenomenon include a diminishing of wonder; many of our student lack the basic curiosity that leads to truly creative thinking, and because their reading is restricted primarily to popular culture, they lack the breadth of knowledge that used to lead to innovative connections. Couple this with impatience, and the result is a reduction in critical thinking and the acceptance of the “easy way out.”

Imagine this scenario: A student is given a standard paper topic, such as “Discuss the use of irony in Huckleberry Finn.” The student’s first impulse is to plug “irony” and “Huckleberry Finn” into a search engine and the results appear within nanoseconds. What happens next is the root cause of plagiarism. Not fundamental dishonesty, or profound laziness (although these certainly can be factors), but the sheer ease of cutting and pasting, and the perception that recombining the material from the internet magically makes it somehow original and acceptable.

For reasons that are much more complex than I want to go into, our students have been brought up to believe that learning should be fun—or, worse, entertaining. If they’re not having fun, and the task is taking too long, it’s just annoying. “This is boring,” I hear my students say, more often than I care to.

What these kids don’t understand is that, in the words of the American Arts & Crafts designer Dard Hunter, “Boredom is a matter of choice, not circumstance.” In fact, the choices that students are allowed to make often engender boredom, and initiate a cascade of problems that all too frequently lead to plagiarism.

So much for theory. How about solutions?

I would like to propose the possibility that the more innovative the assignment, the less likely plagiarism is to occur. For example, instead of assigning a hackneyed writing topic like “Discuss the use of irony in Huckleberry Finn,” how about asking students to pose questions that arise from their reading of the story? Why did something happen the way it did? Why were certain conditions present in the story? What makes Huck such an interesting character in the first place? Or instead of assigning a research paper on a general topic like “decorative glass” or “the history of the A-line dress,” find out if students are at all curious about anything related to the range of topics under discussion in the course. If they aren’t curious, perhaps the instructor could suggest questions that he or she has always wondered about.

A general rule to consider is that if the instructor finds grading the paper boring, the student certainly didn’t have much fun writing it—and probably didn’t learn much in the process. I have made it a commandment never to assign a topic that my students have not generated themselves, or that I’m not interested in enough to guide them toward looking for meaningful answers.

Another strategy involves asking students to evaluate all sources included in their bibliographies. I usually ask for general bibliographies (which students annotate to show me how they used each source) rather than works cited pages because they give me a better idea of the range of sources the student has consulted in the process of conducting research. In writing classes, for final research papers, I ask for both. I restrict the number of web sources in most cases, and usually require that they use a variety of media: films, print articles, books, interactive media (CD ROMs and DVDs). I hold research workshops where we discuss strategies for locating information and using the results. For material located on the internet, I require website evaluations to determine the quality of information presented: who wrote the article? What are his or her credentials? What is the source of the webpage—Personal? Educational? Business? Commercial? The annotations provide this information for other media—who wrote the book or directed the film? How is this material relevant to the research problem?

Ours is an institution that fosters creativity. We should therefore make a concerted effort to avoid assigning work that encourages students to think in clichés. Meaningful research, and original projects and writing, can only arise from engagement with the material. Our challenge as educators, therefore, is to provide good examples for our students. Initiate more creative projects that call for non-standard solutions; pose challenging questions that require students to break out of their “comfort zones” and into the real world of uncomfortable questions. A great deal of what I learned about teaching came from being an Olympics of the Mind coach, and having to guide seventh-graders through a series of problems without suggesting what they should do. They had to solve the problems themselves; all I could do was ask questions. My team members didn’t ever win the competition, but they did get creativity awards because their ideas were often both strange and beautiful.

One of the most useful assignments I ever undertook as a college student in philosophy was to argue a statement from a viewpoint opposite to that I held. Doing so forced me to see the other side of the question, and made me aware of the perils of faulty reasoning. But it was also extremely difficult because I wasn’t at all comfortable looking through someone else’s eyes (or thinking through someone else’s brain). If we want our students to understand the use of irony in Huckleberry Finn, we need to get them to think about what’s ironic in their world first, but then to wonder what Huck would do in a situation similar to ours. Or, the student might wonder how he or she would react given technological limitations of Huck’s historical moment. The idea is to get them to think about irony not just as an important literary trope used in this one work, but also as a source of humor, drama, and satire in the world as a whole.

The main reason I’m seldom confronted with plagiarism is that my students have to write about how they solved the problems I pose. Occasionally I get someone who tries to turn the assignment into a research paper by cutting and pasting information out of Wikipedia or a website, but that’s not the assignment, so the student fails that segment of it. But if they follow the guidelines and write about what they did and why, I generally get a higher level of writing, and the results are frequently rewarding, both for them and for me.

If, as I suspect, students tend to plagiarize out of laziness rather than larceny, we can go a long way toward nipping it in the bud by simply making it unlikely. Truly original assignments and questions that tap into our students’ innate curiosity might very well minimize the problem. If our students have to account for their thinking process, by always showing thumbnails, storyboards, process drawings, outlines, notes, and other preliminary efforts, they won’t copy other people’s material because it won’t fit into the process. This approach requires more grading, because instructors have to be involved throughout the process, but it’s a lot better than having to take the time to hunt down the sources of suspected plagiarism. It’s also a more positive approach, because it doesn’t ask us to view every student as a potential thief!

However we go about it, the challenge is not to make the effort punitive. Students need to understand why plagiarism is a bad idea; they need to be shown how it hurts creativity; they need to respect the work of others in the same way they expect other designers to respect theirs. We’re faced with a generation that’s grown up sharing information and networking in numerous ways. The democratization of communication will continue to open up challenges to our notions of intellectual property. But students need to know that it’s beneficial for all concerned to acknowledge the role of other people’s creativity. Nobody says they shouldn’t make connections; but they need to understand that by giving credit where it’s due, they’re contributing to the transformation of information into true knowledge.

Photo credit: Old books from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, by Gnosus; The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg, 1850. Both via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The End of Metaphor?

Before tonight's debate, which I probably won't watch (it's really hard on my blood pressure; instead, I read transcripts the next day. I do, however, occasionally watch with the sound off to see what body language looks like), I decided to get something off my chest. So far I've hesitated to blog roughshod into politics because some of my best and most beloved friends and family espouse views that differ significantly from mine. In truth, despite my often apparent "leftiness," I'm a fairly conservative person--in terms of family values, hearth, home, all that stuff. And despite my fairly radical anti-capitalism (at least capitalism as it has emerged since the Industrial Revolution), I have a lot of views that folks might think of as pretty conservative.

One of these concerns the idea of democracy. I think, in essence, that Socrates and Plato were right. Democracy doesn't work unless the populace that practices it is educated; otherwise you get mob rule. A person can't get a whole lot more conservative than siding with an ancient Greek dead white guy.

Today, of course, participation in governance is the birthright of every citizen in this country and in other modern democracies and social democracies. Citizenship entails responsibilities as well as rights--which is as it should be--although many seem to forget the responsibility part in the heat of political campaigns.

At any rate, at the risk of offending all sorts of people, I'm going to go out on a limb here and tell you why I think John McCain and (even more so) Sarah Palin are not good prospects for leaders in a modern democracy--especially one trying to maintain a place of power and prominence in an increasingly global economy.

It has to do with metaphor. Human beings, whom I like to refer to (as a species) as homo translator (man the translator, or metaphor-maker), rely on metaphorical thinking. As I've noted previously, there are two basic ways human beings learn stuff: by hearsay and by experience (Socrates develops these two varieties of education in The Republic). We learn when people tell us stories about what they and our ancestors have done, and we learn by doing things ourselves (remember chemistry lab?). Both of these ways of learning provide us with examples from which we can extrapolate ideas and apply them to new situations. Both similarities to and differences from other situations (ones we're more familiar with) help us to understand what's going on.

The value of formal education is that it expands our repertoir of examples by encouraging us to learn many more stories than we get locally (from family and friends, and in our own time). These stories add to our "cultural pool of metaphor" (the term comes from Gerald Holton) by including information from a much vaster range of people and from a much broader temporal spectrum than we could ever actually experience. We couple those stories with our own "local" learning and experience to gain a more broadly-based, richer education. I won't go as far as Plato and Socrates in saying that popular knowledge doesn't really count; but I will say that book-learning and wider exposure to the world prepare leaders better than does hanging around at the local saloon, drinking a Bud Light. Not that pub-crawling isn't good for philosophy; without the taverns in Edinburgh, the Scottish Enlightenment might never have happened, and Adam Smith might never have written The Wealth of Nations.

As I was saying, these combined modes of learning form the foundation for the kind of education needed to run a democracy. If some people have vastly diminished learning resources, they can't participate as completely or as well. And this is one of the abiding difficulties facing modern democracy: making sure every citizen has the opportunity to become well educated and to participate in governing his or her country.

The word "populist" has recently exploded into our common vocabulary to describe a particular kind of political candidate. It's gone beyond an earlier description of someone who rises from the working or middle classes and represents the concerns of most citizens. Very recently it has come to refer to someone who's not only not a political insider, but also not an "elitist." Populists of this description don't necessarily have much of an education, but can draw on even fairly restricted experience because they "know what it's like" to be an average Joe, to be like "everyman" (or "everywoman"). They don't have to know about tough subjects like economics, because they'll have people to advise them.

So a few questions begin to emerge: if you don't know much about a subject like economics, how are you going to evaluate the advice you're given? If you have no grounding in international relations and understand little about other cultures, how are you going to know if somebody's selling you a bill of goods when his or her advice is to wage war? If you're not conversant with the fundamentals of capitalism, how are you going to negotiate the nuances of the horrifically complex system that has emerged in the last century, and is now compounded by the reality of globalization? If you don't understand basic environmental science, how can you govern in a time of climatic crisis?

As I listen to Sarah Palin stumble around questions in interviews, it becomes clear that she is just not very well educated. She does seem to have plenty of street smarts, and good local political instincts (because she is just like the people she governs in Alaska). Her pool of metaphor is adequate for people who have a passel of kids, drive snow mobiles, work on pipelines, play hockey, and shoot moose (or wolves). But most of the world shares only one or two of these experiences; it's clear, for example, that aside from child-rearing she shares little enough with me. Palin's metaphors are primarily local and extremely hackneyed. She lacks the historical and cultural background that true world leaders need simply to hold a conversation with one another for longer than a brief introduction at the UN. Her entire candidacy is based on strongly held, inflexible religious and political views, and severely limited experience of the world.

John McCain, on the other hand, has both education and experience on his side. Being a graduate of Annapolis ensures a young Naval officer of a solid academic background, albeit one focused on what makes a good military man (and although he graduated near the bottom of his class). A significant chunk of his experience, however, comes from his incarceration in Vietnam, and very few of the rest of us share anything like it. We have no way of knowing how it colored his understanding of the world. His time in prison also looms so large in his life that it seems to have become the central defining metaphor for every other experience. And when I listen to him debate and participate in interviews, seldom do I not hear a reference, either open or oblique, to what he endured and what it taught him. As horrific and impossible for the rest of us to truly understand as it was, it happened half a lifetime ago. His experiences since that time, however, take a back seat to that single, all-consuming narrative.

Because of his less-then-stellar academic record, McCain's educational credentials don't make him susceptible to complaints about elitism. He doesn't have to apologize for an Ivy League education or for a reputation as a thinker. In that, he and Palin share a populist pulpit from which they can make fun of deliberation and intellectualism, and brag about making decisions with their guts or without blinking. And this is precisely where I have a problem.

The careful thinking-through of problems that comes with broad experience is a quality I would like to see in someone who works next to a red telephone and has a button within reach. I do not want somebody who reacts with his or her guts rather than his or her brains. And I want as leaders people who have enough cultural experience to include books like John Hersey's Hiroshima, Herman Wouk's The Winds of War, and films like Seven Days In May and Dr. Strangelove in their library of metaphors.

When we begin to denigrate our public intellectuals and to decry intellectualism as elitism, we are also sending a message that does every child in this country a disservice. When we make fun of smart people, but make our kids suffer the indignities of today's public schools--and then tell them that they have to go to college--we're sending them a very mixed message.

Unless we start electing people with the intellectual substance to solve our economic problems and rebuild our reputation among other world leaders and their constituencies, and until we have a president who's smart enough to evaluate evidence carefully and honestly, we'll continue on the path laid down over the last eight years. And without fresh, complex, vibrant metaphors and examples on which to model an alternative future, there's little hope that things will get better any time soon.

On a conciliatory note, if anyone's still with me after this rant, I'll end with a apt quotation from Editorial Anonymous (a blog on publishing children's books), which sums up my view of party politics:

. . . I don't mind what party people align themselves with. The nice thing about book people is that they're thinking people, and as long as you're thinking, you get to vote however you want. The people who drive me crazy are the ones who vote "from their gut". . . . Thinking people like to talk civilly and intelligently about issues, and as long as you're ready to do that, you're in the club.

A post-debate update, 3 October: I did watch it. And I haven't changed my mind. The main difficulty as I see it is that Palin didn't answer the questions posed; she gave speeches. She also winked and looked cute and tried hard to be folksy. She even asked if she could call Senator Biden "Joe" (he referred to her throughout as "Governor Palin" or "the governor"), so although the exchange was civil and even friendly, it lacked decorum. I'm glad she didn't embarrass herself, and it's clear that she's a quick study. But I'm still convinced that her time has not yet come.

Image credits: Manuscript of Sughrat (Socrates) from a 13th century Seljuk illustrator. Currently kept at Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul, Turkey; Socrates lecturing, from Raphael's School of Athens, Stanza dei Conservatori, Vatican. Both from Wikimedia Commons.