Saturday, July 31, 2010

Essay leverage

Currently training this batch of kids to be less topic conscious so that if they encounter a list of essay questions that ask about unfamiliar subject matter, they won't panic, talk nonsense and die. I believe that the question provides its own answer, so any question is equally do-able, given a reasonable amount of general (not topical) knowledge.

The strategy is to remove the pressure on the kid to cook up an arbitrary answer to the least scary-looking question, but instead simply work on expanding any question of choice to essay-length, thereby allowing the question to answer itself. I mean, since the question already provides its own energy, it's much more efficient to leverage an answer using that energy rather than having to generate a whole new energy from scratch to come up with an answer by ourselves. And, it's far better for the question to drive the content rather than have the content force itself upon the question -- the latter being the mindset that I'm actively battling since it's the usual way of approaching essays around here.

Have I had any success with this approach? I've had a cursory look at the latest set of essays my tutorial groups have turned in for grading. There doesn't seem to be any particular question that is a common favourite, which usually happens when the kids home in on one or two topically "safe" questions. Instead, I'm looking at a broad range of questions with different topic foci, different question types.

The randomness of distribution tells me the kids are more comfortable in choosing questions. Maybe they're taking greater risks than they have before, but the fact that they are now branching out and no longer bunching up is a sign -- they are taking their first steps towards intellectual freedom.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mark to reward, not punish

I'm not sure if non-GP tutors can understand this, but I'm irritated that some of my colleagues are requesting sample essay outlines as aids to grading the kids' essays for this week's common test. For the info of non-GP tutors, such outlines contain a list of possible points that a student might raise in response to his or her chosen question. 12 questions on the test paper means 12 separate lists of open possibilities.

I hesitate to provide such a dubious thing because knowing us, we will use it to hunt down points that do not appear in the students' essays and penalize them for their omissions. The more missing points, the more their grade slides until we hit the basement. Another failure. Then we wonder why we have so many casualties and are aghast as we count up the number of kids we need to remedy.

Cambridge tells us that our grading philosophy should be to reward students for what they do offer, and not punish them for what they miss. That means every essay needs to be taken on its own merit without a comparison to an ideal. While we are grading, we are looking out for logical structures, supporting reasons, consistency of argument and, broadly, relevance to the question. When we do see evidence of such argumentative skill, we add to the score until we can add no more

This does not mean that the essay will automatically pass, but it does mean that we are prepared to listen to each student, inasmuch as we want them to listen to us. 'Marking schemes' prejudice us in that students who don't say what we want to hear must be wrong and therefore failed.

I think that on the whole, we really have a misconception of what failure is. We think of the essay as a soccer game. Scoring points is like scoring goals while losing the game means not scoring (assuming that the non-existent opponent has scored more goals and has therefore beaten the essay writer). To us, that translates as win = pass, lose = fail. But in truth, winning and losing are part of the same game. We win some, we lose some, but the important thing is that we continue to play because we can.

Failing a GP essay is possible, but not for the reason of 'losing' the game. Failure is equivalent to being disqualified in a match for infringing the rules. Why kids fail is because they don't know how to play the game. They don't know where the goalposts are. They don't know where the out-of-bounds lines are. They don't know what's a fair play and what isn't. So failure isn't a failure to raise the right points, it means the rules and objectives of the game are not clear to them.

Content may mean the difference between a kick-about between friends and an EPL match. Regardless, the scoreline doesn't really matter as long as everyone plays to the same rules, aims at the right goals, and stays within the agreed-to boundaries. If our kids can do that, they don't deserve to fail. So let's not prejudice ourselves by watching the scoreboard when we should be enjoying the game instead.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Can't see the forest for the trees

Went into the forest to meet our NParks rep for a hands-on session of ecological conservation, and our community service for the year.

Our job was to clear "foreign" plants that have taken root all over our previously pristine tropical rainforest and are now competing with the indigenous species for the same resources.

Wielding cangkuls we trudged through mud and soil to hack away at the ground, creating lots more mud and soil, this time of the airborne variety. Dig deep enough holes, break a few supporting roots, and the offending foreigners no longer have the will to stay in the ground.

Thus, we uprooted quite a few stubborn unwelcome invaders. But it was an intense afternoon workout doing so. Drenched in sweat, caked in mud, ant-bitten, and for all we did, we only cleared just a tiny, tiny section of our entire nature reserve.

Like it or not, it looks like the foreigners are here to stay. And no, that's not intended as a metaphor for any outstanding local issue commonly discussed in kopitiams and ST Forum pages. So don't anyhow quote me, ok?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wavve hello!

Dinner at Wavve, a grill & chill place at the spanking new Orange Tee Building. I never even noticed it being built, yet there it was. The occasion was a birthday for whom the Guest of Honour arrived round about the time we were contemplating our dessert options. Traffic's dreadful when you're in a hurry.

Good opportunity to indulge the inner carnivore. My lamb rack went minimal on the greens (the leaf I accidentally dropped on my shirt counted as a significant loss) but the chunks of lamb on each of the three bones were decently substantial. It was all I could do to avoid gripping the bones in my clawed digits and rending flesh with my canines. But I was with polite company, so it was a civilized application of cutlery as usual. June gave me half her sirloin too, making a happy predator for the evening.

Our table went for almost the whole range of desserts to share. The creme brulee, profiteroles and tiramisu made their rounds... no, wait, the creme brulee was mine exclusively, ha ha! The desserts were light, not too sweet, the way we like.

Price wise it's ok for a finer-than-usual once-in-a-while meal. $70 paid for my share of birthday boy and his date's dinners as well as fully for June's and mine. Not bad.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Parenting according to Gru

Parenting, according to Gru, is a simple process. Take care of basic needs: "food, water, poo poo & pee pee". Take care of intellectual needs: basic education (dance class). Take care of higher needs: recreation and emotional bonding. Despite himself, he gets the childcare right -- a textbook Hierarchy of Needs met to Maslow's specifications.

Gru has no plans "for their good". On the contrary, his plans are entirely self-serving. His adopted orphans are simply a means to an end. Their safety and well-being are taken at the basic minimum standards, knowing that he can dispose of them when they have fulfilled his requirements of them. How heinous.

Why do we face a declining fertility rate in our country and in many other developed nations around the world? Because we want to be good parents. Gru is a monster in his regard for childcare principles, but he's got three kids while the rest of us have... significantly less.

As good parents, we place our kids first above all, ourselves included. We plan far ahead into their future, shape them according to what we have determined is best for them, and raise them like we're never going to let them go. We know about hygiene and health, about discipline do's and don't's, about child psychology and labels like ADHD and OCD which we identify in children and lament how we have failed them somewhere, somehow.

Our modern model of childcare looks really good. We've taken care of every aspect of child-rearing that practically guarantees healthy, happy kids that will grow into healthy, happy adults. Now, if only we had some kids to work our plans on.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Throwing punches

Sully has a new kind of training to add to my repertoire: boxing. Today I learned the basic movements to maintain a stable base from which to launch my deadly arsenal of jabs and crosses. I'd always thought I was a good scrapper, but when put to the test today my technique left much to be desired. Stance too easily sent off-balance; lax defending exposes my glass jaw to counter-attack; difficulty stringing jab-cross-duck combos together being too anxious to punch and not anxious enough to duck, or getting my limbs all tangled up due to a lack of coordination. What a pushover I'd be in a real fight, despite my illusions to the contrary. Lots more training to be done still.