Monday 19 November 2018

Finding out

I teach in The Institute, a perfectly average third-level college in the Irish Midlands. On Friday, towards the end of Science Week, I asked what I wished for in a young scientist. A few years ago, The Suits were all steamed up about corporate rebranding, mission statement, and graduate attributes. F
or the latter, I pushed to put "a good pair of hands" but nobody else agreed. That captures a lot of the desirable qualities in a person about to launch out into the world. As a worker, yes, but also as a partner, a parent and a person. A GPoH, can fix things, is reliable, steady, and not afraid to get dirty. You can go a long way on that. We spend a helluva lot of billable hours loading content into the minds of our students . . . almost all forgotten immediately after the next quiz / test / exam. You don't need content if you know how to find things out; because you can get your hands on any facts you need by applying your finding out toolkit.

I think finding out is a different graduate attribute from GPoH and I do my best to encourage different ways of getting to The Truth. Sometimes the easiest way is to fire up Wikipedia, or Google; sometimes it's better to go to the scientific literature or >!shock!< a book. Only if you come up empty then you may have to make some observations, record some data, design an experiment to answer your question. On my watch, all of these are valid, but only if there is some processing in the student's brain. This is why we have exercises about plagiarism: nothing lasting or useful has been achieved by cutting and pasting paragraphs from a source 'out there' into a student write-up or report.

We use a series of pages designed by U Leeds. One exercise is to read 10 different copy-and-paste scenarios and decide [black or white] whether each one is 'plagiarism' or 'not plagiarism'. I gave each student in the class the list and invited them to read, think, decide and commit. Being biddable, everyone bowed their heads and started to read - some with furrowed brows. Suddenly in the corner there was a clatter of keyboard and I asked Kris what in heck and tarnation he was doing. He said he was typing in the first sentence to find "1. You use a direct quote but forget to write the reference." to find The Answer.  Me: Aaaaargh, no you're not! You're meant to be thinking, like, on your own two hemispheres, like, not soliciting an opinion from St Google of the Cloud. It's a bit like reaching for the calculator to add two numbers together, when you could do it in your head and keep that part of your brain limber.

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