July 19, 2013

Going Listless: A case for deeper thinking

Filed under: creativity,deep thoughts,gifted,learning,writing — Candace Hackett Shively @ 8:58 am

NUMLISTToday’s rapid-fire, tweeting world loves lists. We see numbered lists on Twitter, in headlines, on magazine covers, among the “popular” stories on our Google News sidebar, among our Facebook friends’ links, on blogs or sites we follow, and even on television. The lists often outnumber any significant substance. The headlines read “Ten best ways to do this,” “Top seven blunders of that,” “50 Best blah-blah,” “100 top whatever.” I admit that I have fallen into the numbered list trap when in a hurry. It’s simply easier and quicker to list a bunch of stuff than it is to finely craft a single idea.

I am tired of lists. Give me one solid, deep article or critique any time over a long list that allows the author to avoid a firm decision or  investigation of  one option in full detail. I would like a supported opinion on one book, a recommended investment, a classroom management strategy, or tip to deal with an ornery two year old, not a long list of possibilities that I must sort, probe, or filter. Yes, I like choices, but I also like to hear an opinion supported by evidence and flavored by nuance. Numbered lists are quick, but they share as much subtlety as an all you can eat buffet. They scream,” My smorgasbord is impressive because it has so many serving dishes, not because any dish can actually stand  on its own culinary merit.”

As teachers, we expect our students to provide visible steps for their solutions to equations, solid evidence for the thesis of their essays, and connections between data and conclusion in their lab reports. Would we allow a “Top ten options in solving for X”? or “Seven possible reasons for the Civil War”? I hope not. Numbered lists have value as brainstorms and for idea gathering — as preliminary investigations, not as ends in themselves.

We should model what we expect. If we write lists for our students (or parents), we should prioritize the items and explain why. If we allow Top Ten lists from our students, at the very least we should ask,”Now that you have chosen ten, can you rank them, explaining why you chose that order?”  If we write articles or blogs, we should skip lists and focus on one thorough critique or discussion.

Ready to go listless? Here is a teaching idea to promote 21st century skills and an opportunity for authentic learning: Have students collect as many examples as they can of numbered lists from their own experience of the media, web surfing, or social networking: articles, blog posts, videos, etc. Then ask them to select one list they care about, research it, and rewrite it based on evidence to support a specific rank order. Of course, they will need to write their explanation in a manner  understandable to the list’s intended audience, including all the supporting evidence, appropriate voice, and conventions needed for publishing in that venue. Have them share it as a comment, blog post, or in-kind response to the original author.

“Listless” could become a very productive oxymoron.

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