Friday, October 16, 2009

Stupid Is as Stupid Does

I had an interesting conversation with a parent this morning. He dropped by to ask about his daughter's progress and the topic of homework came up. I mentioned that she had done 11 out of the first 15 assignments but had received either 1 or 0 points on 9 of those; in other words, she had answered only two of the 11 questions correctly.

I explained that these were logic questions; the purpose of the exercise is for students to learn and practice logical thinking and reasoning. As I was explaining this, the man said that he had seen some of the questions on the homework blog. Then he asked a question which I found rather incredible:

"Isn't logic just a matter of opinion?"

I was a little stunned to hear this, and I answered adamantly, "No, absolutely not. Opinions are inherently illogical."

"Really? Doesn't the answer depend on your point of view?" he asked, or something to this effect. Can't people disagree about what the answer is? Don't different people have different opinions about what's logical?

No, I explained, that's the whole point. There can only be one logical answer to a question which is designed to elicit such an answer. Logic does not depend on opinion, feeling, bias, point of view, experience, or anything else. You can't "agree" or "disagree" with logic. 2+2 can only =4.

When I hear parents say things like this, whether to defend their children against mean teachers who have the audacity to insist that students answer questions correctly in order to receive credit for them, or otherwise, it makes it much easier to understand why kids make such stupid decisions. Many of them really are being taught at home that whatever they "think" (or feel, or believe, or whatever) is fine, or "right," regardless of logic and regardless of how their actions affect others, let alone themselves.

I encountered this kind of nihilism before, when I taught on Long Island, although it was much more intense there; the attitude that nothing could be considered "right" or "true" or valuable. In their minds, everything was a matter of opinion. EVERYTHING. Whether it was an interpretation of a novel they were reading or a grade they received on an essay, they dismissed and rejected everything I said as "just your opinion." It became impossible to teach.

I started giving these logic problems (basically dumbed-down LSAT questions) as homework this year in part because of the ACUITY test results from last year, which showed that students had a very difficult time connecting evidence to conclusions and vice-versa. Their performance in my class, especially on essays but also in terms of their behavior and deportment, bore this out. And the results, so far, are not encouraging; most of my students, except for the Honors class, are getting the questions wrong, and even those who get them right have a hard time explaining their reasoning. (Of course, that's only among those who are doing the homework at all...) Most of the wrong answers and explanations appear to be based on intuition rather than logic; they're picking the answer that feels right, not the one that actually makes sense logically. And they chalk up their getting the questions marked wrong to meanness on my part, rather than flaws in their own thinking or their own inability to think. As such, they see no reason to address the problem.

Sad to say, the students' overall performance on the homework so far has demonstrated something I've known for some time: These kids are not very smart. What's really sad is that they think they are, and have unwittingly trapped themselves in a permanent state of stupid, enabled by their parents. Someday this will change, but I don't know when, or what will precipitate it.

Read the homework blog and judge for yourself.

No comments: