Archive for January, 2016

There are no short cuts. Really.

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

Several years ago, while hunting for something to add to Dr. Bruce’s extensive Shakespeare media collection, we ran across a short documentary called “The Hobart Shakespeareans”. It’s a profile of teacher Rafe Esquith of the Los Angeles school district, and his dedication to his fifth-grade students. Besides the normal coursework required by the state for the grade level, Mr. Esquith encouraged his students, many of them from a disadvantaged area, to put in extra hours to create an end-of-term production of a Shakespeare play (in the documentary, it’s Hamlet). The success of the documentary led Esquith to write about his experiences in “There Are No Shortcuts”.

In the half-dozen years or so since I read Esquith’s book, I’ve found myself using that phrase a lot. Managers seem to think there should be a single, simple process that can solve all of their problems, but there is no short cut to good design: you have to analyze the situation and balance security, hardware, and software requirements. Students seem to think a week’s extension to study for an exam will fix a year’s worth of neglecting homework and failing quizzes or skipping classes, but there is no short cut to knowledge. You need disciplined study and review habits.

Some of this, I think, is the result of living in the instant-feedback, information-based age that that Internet has created for us. It’s easy to run a search engine and get some data to answer a question. Most of my students can google a website faster than I can, and then use the control-F find command to locate a term, and cut-and-past a response into our online discussions. They are experts at rapid retrieval.

The problem is that in their haste (if they bother to actually read it all), they haven’t noticed that the string they’ve chosen doesn’t actually define the term we’re discussing, doesn’t explain how it relates to other ideas, and doesn’t show them how to apply it. They have some data, but no context for it, and no way to determine whether it is accurate, or the prejudiced opinion of an agenda-driven author. What they have is not really knowledge, and certainly not wisdom. Yet we are often content merely to commend their ability follow a process that allows them to look something up quickly, as though this were the end, and not simply the means. We fail to push them to acquire and apply critical thinking skills to what they have found, so that they can truly evaluate its importance and implications.

Too often, students who are asked to write an essay expressing their own ideas and to justify their position with their own reasons find it much easier to look up the idea online and present the arguments as their own work. When a math or physics problem proves challenging, instead of working the solution out themselves and risking getting it wrong, they hunt for the worked-out example at some “resource” site, and copy whatever approach is presented. We used to identify blatantly copying someone else’s work — however easily available — as plagiarism, and suspend students for cheating this way, but faced with competition for college admission and lucrative jobs, students (and even their parents and their teachers) will justify these methods as “just shortcuts”, so the students can have time to do all the other things we expect them to accomplish. [At Scholars Onlilne, we still consider presenting someone else's work as one's own a form of plagiarism, and our polcies on cheating spell out the consequences.]

We have traded the goal of depth of knowledge and real mastery of a subject for a breadth of information so expansive that it can be nothing other than superficial — it’s hardly knowledge and it certainly isn’t wisdom. Instead of struggling with ideas until we truly make them our own, we fracture our time into pieces to cover dozens of topics, many of which will be revised or disappear before our students can actually use them. In order to meet all of the perceived educational requirements, our students must split their attention and wind up constantly multitasking, often to the point where they miss the key idea of a discussion entirely, misinterpret their assignments, and answer the wrong questions altogether.

Any athlete, any performance artist, and any farmer can tell you that when you are trying to develop real skills or produce an edible real crop, there are no shortcuts.

There are no shortcuts that can eliminate the hours of focused training required to build muscle tone and cardiovascular endurance if you want to run a marathon, and there is no substitute for working with and accepting critical evaluation from a coach who can help you identify the behavior that slows you down. There are no shortcuts that will let you avoid hours of concentrated practice if you want to play a piano concerto perfectly and with passion, and you will still need a teacher who will help you realize and release your love for the piece. There no shortcuts that can eliminate the labor of planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting if you want to eat your carrot crop — and you will need the experience of others who have successfully raised carrots in the same valley if you are going to realize a good harvest. Even then, you will have to wait while nature does its own work with sun and rain and soil and teaches you patience.

What we often forget is that practice and coaching are also necessary if we want to grow in knowledge and wisdom. There are no shortcuts that will let you skip the disciplined study and reflective thought required to achieve mastery of a subject, much as we would like to think there are. It takes us time to review details and develop the memory skills needed to master a new concept. We need guidance to learn how to read complex material closely and critically, and criticism to hone that preception when we stray or become distracted. We need to take enough time to follow an argument, examine its premises, research the facts it cites, and determine for ourselves whether or not the conclusion is justified.

We need teacher and peer interaction to recognize that we have not expressed ourselves clearly and we need to restate or rewrite or redraw our ideas before we can really share them. We need the support of our learning community to encourage us when we fail at all of these things from time to time. We even need to practice our ability recognize our failures and to develop the discipline to try again, so that we can emulate the athlete who doesn’t give up after losing her first race, the pianist who doesn’t stop practicing with the first flubbed trill, and the farmer who weeds and waters and bides his time until the harvest is ready.

With our educational system’s emphasis on preparing for the technical skills needed in the twenty-first century, we have forgotten that classical liberal arts education in critical thinking is the foundation on which we build build those skills, but also the foundation on which we build our system of values. The average worker in the 21st century will hold a dozen jobs, not just one, and the skills and technical expertise for each job will require retraining. We need to emphasize not only the skills that will make retraining easier — critical thinking and self-evaluation — but also the character traits of honesty, integrity, charity, and patience that will make our children valuable citizens of their communities as well as employable members of the work force.