Friday, October 02, 2009

Situated Logic and Standardized Pests

Here's the canonical problem. You need to explain a general principle to someone else, someone who isn't all that great at abstract reasoning or who generally prefers to hear a story rather than a syllogism. So you explain the principle via a realistic example that is worked through. That let's you tell the story and illustrate the principle at the same time. Your task then is to figure out what details of the example to include in your presentation. Some of those details are there to illustrate the principle. Others are there to embellish the story. The question then is what to include in the example and why. Have you told a good story? Is the principle clearly articulated within the story? Those are the two main questions to use to test the solution.

If this canonical problem is taken as the basis for a certain type of writing, then the next question is whether the writer has enough of a sense of taste to give reasonable answers to those test questions. Likewise, the canonical problem can be taken as the basis for a certain type of live presentation to an audience. Again, the follow up question is whether the presenter has enough of a sense of taste to give reasonable answers to the test questions.

The canonical problem, as it is constructed here, is the obverse of the type of reading comprehension problems one sees on the SAT. The College Board calls these Passage Based Reading. Understanding how to do these sort of questions conveys a type of reasoning ability. As I've written elsewhere, mostly recently in this chapter of my book, I've had suspicion for quite a long while that many students don't have good skills in doing this based on my experience with getting them to discuss articles about economics from the New York Times. (I'm not referring to recent experience but rather from courses I've taught over the past 13 or 14 years.)

Do note that I was careful with the choice of the word "obverse." The canonical problem is not the inverse of the reading comprehension problem. There is some art involved in choosing what detail to include or not from the example. Being an engaging story teller requires more than understanding of logic. Nevertheless, there is also a type of reasoning involved. Getting the gist of the general principle into the story requires identification of what that gist is. This creates an imperative for the writer or the presenter.

One might speculate that being good at the reading comprehension questions would dispose one to be good at solving the canonical problem. That had been my prior expectation. But now I'm beginning to wonder.

In the class I'm currently teaching, which has students from our Campus Honors Program who typically have very high standardized test scores, the students are struggling with solving the canonical problem. At first, I was quite surprised by this. Now, as I'm trying to make sense of what I'm observing, there seem to be two possible conclusions to draw.

One may be that the students have reading comprehension of a teach-to-the-test variety. In the testing situation the students are clued to read the passage and ask - what is the test maker looking for? Armed with that clue the students can make good meaning of the passage. But for other reading, more expansive and free ranging, they don't read in the same way or don't know how to distill the essence of what they are reading. The ability to understand a narrowly focused passage is surely necessary, but it is in no way sufficient.

Unfortunately, this ability to make sense of a larger body of reading material defies the standardized tests, because measuring it would take too long in the administration of the exam. So, I'm afraid, we really know quite little about how students read for meaning when confronting a longer work. We should fess up to that fact.

The other possible conclusion is that even with good reading comprehension the student will still struggle on the canonical problem, because they are separate skills. In this case the obvious conclusion is that students need training on how to work the canonical problem. My sense of it, based on my class. is that students are not getting this training much if at all.

Neither possible conclusion makes me happy. But talking it out this way, I feel more that the students are the victims than the perpetrators. I've got to keep that in mind as I teach. Yet I also have to wonder how we can so neglect their intellectual development, including the best and the brightest of them.

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