Friday, August 19, 2016

Essay as a verb

It's always interesting to look at kids' faces the moment they flip over the essay test, scan through the question list and realize that they don't know the answer to any of the questions. There is shock, confusion and, more often than not, a look of having been betrayed.

It's true. The questions are seldom like what we had discussed in tutorials before, and deliberately so. No one is supposed to know the answer to an essay question beforehand. If anyone does, they probably cheated. Or worse, they think they know but they are operating on flawed assumptions at the very least.

The essay is the result of an activity -- in this case, the activity of essaying. Yes, 'essay' is a verb meaning 'to try', 'to put to the test' and 'to make trial of'. Look it up. Knowing the answer beforehand, therefore is prejudicing the outcome of a test or a trial.

The essay proceeds as a trial. There is the accused who is accused of a crime. The essayist has the prerogative to present the case as either prosecution or defence. Based on whatever due diligence they had done prior to the trial -- through research, study, tutorial activity, and topical readings for example -- the essayist has to improvise putting together the case and then present it formally as the essay submission for grading by the marker who plays the role of the judge.

Spending tutorial time preparing kids in advance with pre-digested answers does them a disservice, and is a waste of time. While we can and do help the kids with content material which is key to their case preparation, they need far more practice in courtroom procedure. As lawyers, their job is to develop their arguments through asking the right people the right questions in order to arrive at the conclusion that is most favourable to whichever side of the case they stand on.

The hard part of teaching kids to ask questions is in figuring out how to get them to switch off the parts of the brain that makes them think like parrots, and how to activate the other parts of the brain that make them think like people.