Friday, April 12, 2013

Why Multiple Choice Tests Are Good For Everyone

In high school, young Longhair Anonymous volunteered to take part in a classroom debate.  The topic was simple:  apartheid, pro or con.  Students were allowed to choose which side they would argue and yours truly, ever the contrarian, chose to argue in favor of apartheid.

He lost, and was happy to lose.  It meant that his classmates, who judged the debate and voted, were not idiots.  Ot, if they were idiots, that they were at least decent and humane ones.

We remember this, when we hear about a situation in an Albany, New York, high school this week.  Per the Times, a teacher assigned students to write an essay, using the classical rhetorical forms of pathos, ethos or logos to argue persuasively in favor of an unpopular idea:

The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.
“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

This was a mistake.

The teacher is going to face discipline, which may include termination.  The principal spent what were no doubt some unhappy hours meeting with leaders of the capital district's Jewish community.  The Times quotes a number of very reasonable voices, students, parents and community leaders alike, all basically saying "the teacher isn't an anti-semite, just a dope."  This seems very likely to us.

Hint for next time:  give the kids a choice.  If you want to put defending Nazis on the table, okay, but give your students some other options, like pretending they are Churchill denouncing Neville Chamberlain, or FDR making the case against American isolationism.  Or, hell, throw some Commies into the mix:  it is 1940, and you are trying to convince anybody that an alliance with Stalin is the most morally defensible route.

Yes, trying to defend the indefensible can be a valuable learning experience.  We've done it.  But for some students, it can be just as valuable a lesson in rhetoric, philosophy and life to practice defending the good, the true and the beautiful.

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