25 February 2014

The essay paradox (maybe facts aren’t so bad after all!)

Here’s something I find puzzling: the SAT essay consistently comes under fire for allowing kids to make up information without being penalized for it. Presumably, then, the people doing the criticizing believe that knowing facts, and citing them appropriately in one’s writing, is a good thing. But at the same time, those people turn around and criticize schools for promoting “drill and kill” and “rote learning.”

If students were truly exposed to endless “drill and kill,” they would presumably at least know facts. There’s almost no way *not* to remember things after hearing them repeated a certain number of times. But from what I’ve observed, most of my students have difficulty discussing their Essay examples in anything resembling an in-depth manner because they don’t know enough concrete facts — about academic subjects, at least — to be able to discuss history, literature, or current events in detail. As a result, their writing inevitably becomes vague, repetitive, and confused.

Does anyone else see the irony here?

You can’t insist that schools stop teaching facts and then be surprised when students don’t know facts!

To be clear, I understand perfectly well that students learn facts best in the context. But the idea that kids are simply sitting and chanting “one times one is one, two times two is four…” is profoundly detached from the reality of American schools in 2014. (Yes, there are plenty of schools that drill kids endlessly in test-taking strategies, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) More likely they’re clustered in groups so they can “learn from each other,” with one or two diligent kids sitting and doing the work while the others talk about what they did last weekend.

If an administrator happens to poke her head in, they’ll all look like wonderfully active and engaged learners, but the chances that they’ll retain any of what they discussed tomorrow or the next day are pretty slim. Then the ¬†ones who can afford it hire tutors to do the drilling they didn’t get in class.

The reality is that even if teachers do present fascinating, engaging, stimulating lessons, kids still need to be held responsible for mastering basic pieces of factual knowledge — the two are not mutually exclusive, and it’s a gross oversimplification to claim that they are. But learning usually involves repetition, sometimes lots of repetition. That’s just how it works. In other domains (sports, music, etc.), that’s still accepted as common sense, but when it comes to academics, all that flies out the window.

Incidentally, I now encourage my students who are big sports fans to just write about sports: a kid who can’t write a coherent argument about the The Great Gatsby to save his life suddenly turns into a clear, flowing, and eloquent writer, complete with names, dates, facts, and statistics, when discussing Magic Johnson’s career. And it works: those essays are (by SAT essay standards) interesting to read, relatively painless for the kids to write, and they consistently receive scores of 10+.

Funny that I don’t see anyone complaining about “rote learning” there — if a kid wants to spend hours memorizing batting or shooting statistics, no one seems to have the least problem with it.

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