Contented Reader

just point me toward the nearest library

Evidence first

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There’s a standard school writing assignment, the persuasive essay.  It’s part of students’ experience from elementary school to high school.  Almost every American adult has written a few of these; many have written nearly a dozen.  And I think they might be what’s wrong with our country.

In textbooks and in classrooms, here’s the way the assignment goes.

  1. Choose an opinion you hold strongly.
  2. Gather evidence that supports your opinion.
  3. Organize what you’ve learned in a persuasive essay, to try to get others to agree with you.

The problem, of course, is that this is exactly the worst possible thing to do with an opinion.  And after twelve years of schooling, people go out into the world thinking that this is what you do with an opinion.  Politicians argue this way. Even Presidents do it.  Adults think that all opinions are equally valid, and that, if they can find evidence to support their opinion, it shows that their opinion is good and true.

The Common Core State Standards are improving a little bit on this, by strongly emphasizing the importance of evidence, but the Common Core doesn’t emphasize that the traditional structure for writing persuasively is not just wrong, it’s dead wrong.

Imagine a world in which every child, from its earliest writing experiences, was instead taught to approach persuasive writing this way:

  1. Choose a subject you think is important.
  2. Gather information about that subject, including opinions from more than one perspective and the evidence those people use to support their opinions.
  3. Fact-check, using the best, most reliable sources you can find to determine which evidence is based in real fact, which is false, and which is misrepresented or misunderstood.
  4. Based on the most reliable evidence, form an opinion.
  5. Write a persuasive essay in which you explain what position you took, and why.

The evidence-gathering should come before forming the opinion, not after.  A strong opinion should grow out of the best available evidence- we shouldn’t form opinions first and then try to justify them.

If even half of Americans took this approach, our country would be radically different, and much improved.

Teachers could accomplish this within a single generation.  We could change the world with our teaching.

But in order for that to happen, most teachers would need to learn how to start with the evidence before forming the opinion.  And right now, we’re just ordinary Americans, graduates of the same school system we are teaching in, and, I learned in my most recent Common Core State Standards training, there aren’t enough teachers who understand this concept to pass it on in the way that would change the world.

And my own quiet voice, and my blog with its tens of readers, isn’t going to be enough to do the job.

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Written by Contented Reader

October 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Opinions

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