Friday, March 06, 2009

On Big Ideas

Scott Marion from Center for Assessment in response to a question I posed during an Education Sector discussion on the 'Beyond the Bubble' report. My question concerned the wisdom in focusing our ed tech energies on creating assessments that focused on current content and assessment achievement rather than using the more holistic and community focused methods offered by Web 2.0 assessment to prepare students better for an unsure future.

There is no question that we need to prepare students for things for which we don't even know about yet. But we can't do that by guessing at the content that is coming in the future. Rather, we need to ensure that our current educational approaches focus on the big ideas of the disciplines (because these big ideas do not change that fast!) and on the process by which students develop expertise in these disciplines as well as the skills to continuing their learning when faced with novel situations.

While I totally agree that it is illogical to 'guess at content' coming in the future, it is by no less means ill-advised to think that 'big ideas do not change that fast'. The argument hinges on what type of ideas we consider.

Take for instance Latin. Latin admittedly hasn't changed much in a while. But the way in which Latin literature is thought about has changed in the most drastic way over the last few years.

Consider: it was the critical practice of Structuralism that had one of the most profound effects on the way that we think about 'close reading' no matter what discipline we teach. In Latin, 'close reading' means taking a single detail -- an image, a word, a manner of speech -- and tracing its use throughout the corpus of either a single work, the work of a single author, a school of authors, or with regard to all of extant Latin literature. A great example is in this essay by Barbara Gold on the issue of the image of the rose and how it relates to time and nature in Horace's poetry. To make a long story short (and with apologies) Gold tracks each time Horace uses 'rose' imagery in his poetry. She then looks for patterns in that usage, finding that his mentions of roses usually accompany thoughts concerning time and nature. And she makes her case for why the poet does this. This is a model close reading and each year I present it as an example of such to my students.

While I will not attempt to make any assumption as to the way in which Prof. Gold goes about her close reading, a technological marvel born at Tufts University makes this whole way of working a whole lot more accessible than back in the 1950's and 60's of Structuralism's beginnings.

That device is The Perseus Project.

Wide-ranging in scale, the interesting aspect of the project for me as a Latin teacher is the section dedicated to hyperlinked Latin texts. From Ovid to Tacitus, each text is chunked into small bits. Each word of each text is then hyperlinked to an online Latin/English dictionary and morphology/grammar tool. From a Latin I perspective, this gives students that ability to work through much more difficult passages of authentic Latin than they ever would be wont to otherwise. For the upper-level students, it presents a unique opportunity to take on scholar-level philological work.

How does it work? Well, say I give the students the word 'ignis' meaning 'fire' and tell them to look up each time the word appeared in the Aeneid. Within seconds, following easy directions which link the hyperlinked words in the dictionary to every use of the word in not only the text at hand, but also to every use of the word in the individual author's work as well as in the whole corpus of Latin literature, the student now has a complete list of every use of the individual word. This used to take WEEKS to do. Now it takes seconds. So the student can focus on finding the patterns, making connections, and analyzing the variety of 'meanings' the poem offers rather than the mind-numbing task of going on a word-search.

The Perseus Project has not changed Latin. But it has changed the way in which Latin is studied and analyzed. In this case the 'big idea' is the idea of 'critique' itself. Kant spent quite a while working on that one. So did Barthes. And Derrida. I don't mind my students working amongst that august company.

Ideas will change quickly. They are changing quickly. It's just that it's not always either the 'idea' or the 'change' that we expect. That's more and more the nature of a world where so many people with so many individual brains are working together at the same time all the while connected by the Net.

We need to teach kids how to think about how big ideas DO change and often change quickly. And that kind of meta-thinking -- which is ever evolving and will never come to a fixed 'conclusion' -- is best supported by the types of tools available in changeable, customizable, flexible, and holistic Web 2.0 apps and interactive Internet media as well as the types of tools good teachers have always used: Socratic Method, conversation, and compassion.

One last thing... this Perseus Project method is just one lesson. It teaches the kids a certain way to look at literature. Over the course of the four years I have most of my Latin students, we look at a wide range of critical styles and to practice each of them, we look at a broad range of content. Breadth of content and methods of analysis and understanding need not be at odds with one another, just as liberal arts and technology need not be at odds with one another. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we can get to worthwhile teaching.

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