Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Good Book for a Big Problem

The New York Times today has come out with an important article on how technology is changing the way our students think, in some ways for the worse. In particular, teachers are complaining that today's students are increasingly unable to develop their ideas in writing, and given the emphases of increasingly influential educators like Doug Lemov (who wrote a piece on the value of repetition that was published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal), this problem may well grow worse.

An antidote to the problem of dull formulas being taught to our high school English students may be found in the excellent Writing and Learning in Cross-National Perspective, which I hope to establish in the center of our writing program at One World Secondary School. In this fine book, David Foster and David R. Russell, both English professors in Iowa, study how writing is taught to students making the transition from secondary to tertiary education in China, England, France, Germany, Kenya, and South Africa. Among these countries, most of whose assessment systems give substantially more emphasis to writing than ours does, they find that France stands out as the only one in which students learn techniques in upper secondary education that lead to success in higher education as well; in all of the others, students experience some shock when faced with the new expectations of the university. In particular, French students learn to write the dissertation, which is translated as "a persuasive essay related to a reading", which differs from the Anglophonic essay structure in some interesting and important ways. A key difference is found in the placement of the thesis statement: we typically teach our students to place this at the end of the introductory paragraph, to be defended in (too often three) body paragraphs preceding a (too often redundant) conclusion. By contrast, in a dissertation, the answer to the problem or question posed is only arrived at in the concluding paragraph, after a student has tried out a tentative thesis and considered its antithesis earlier in the essay. This structure has the virtue of making the development of the composition more stimulating for both writer and reader, since, instead of having discovered a facile answer to a facile question in the 2-5 minutes available for planning in our short timed essays (AP English generally allows for 40 minutes per essay, the ACT and SAT still less) and then proceeding to defend it in a mechanical way, the French student will have four hours available for a single essay (the German student still longer), half the score of which will be determined by the student's plan, and so the student has the opportunity to spend plenty of time considering the various ramifications of more highly intricate questions, and may end up with a conclusion quite different from the one tentatively proposed hours before.

I have been experimenting with adapting the dissertation into the learning of English, and will keep interested readers posted as to our progress.    

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