Saturday, March 22, 2014

SS (Not the Schutzstaffel)

Being sneaky with the Nazi reference there, so sue me. hohoho.

I had the privilege of looking through an SS paper recently (Social Studies lah relax). A young friend needed help with schoolwork so, being a busybody, i tried out the SBQs ("Source-based Questions", but sounds like charred food, or public transport).

Vomited blood. Poor kids.

Sample question:

"How far does Source X prove that the British Army was responsible for escalating the violence in N. Ireland?"

Source X being an extract from some book written by some Irish American on the subject. I'm not being economical with the details here, the "provenance" of Source X literally read "extract from a book written by an Irish American". The provenance did mention that the majority of Irish Americans supported the IRA. What that "fact" had to do with the provenance of this particular source is not exactly clear to me (hurhur). Content-wise, Source X is sympathetic to the British Army, arguing that the IRA was not protecting Catholics from Protestant violence etc, hence the need for the British military presence.

So where do i start?

The question asks for "how far" the source "proved" some specific thing. I find that problematic.

Firstly, how does a bunch of printed words "prove" anything on its own merit? (Creationists, please go away.)  Am i suppose to just point that out and move on to the next question? Probably not.

Taking the question at face-value i would have to answer "Nope, doesn't prove the brits were at fault. It doesn't even say that they were at fault". But.... That's probably not the right approach either since i'm supposed to utilise "higher-order thinking skills".

So i asked my young friend to explain what was taught in school, and here's the gongfu manual (very short version).

Step 1) Check the Source's reliability.

Reliability Checklist:

Is the Source biased? - erh, i guess so.

Does the author have an agenda? - well... i could google the fella if i knew who he/she was...

Who is the target audience? - erh... kids taking exams? I don't even know the title of the book... or when it's written, for that matter.

Does the viewpoint deviate from the norm? (strangely the school notes state that this enhances reliability) - huh? What norm? Like the "fact" that this guy was deviating from the Irish American "norm" of supporting the IRA?

Cross reference with other sources and/or contextual knowledge, i.e. the holy textbook.

Looking at this school-sanctioned template/checklist thing, it looks like the teachers are trying to help the kids by reducing a complex problem to a simpler one through the application of some kind of categorical SOP checklist.

i think the SOP seems to be guiding me towards some weird conclusions though.

a) If the source is biased, it's less reliable. 

Too simplistic... For example, in my opinion, newspapers are all biased without exception. Doesn't mean they are all lying outright. Knowing their editorial slant helps the reader make sense of the reporting. ST is pretty biased, doesn't stop me from reading it.

Good point still, i just hope the students can understand the nuances... Reducing it to a categorical yes/no thing with the checklist is simply too simplistic. Give our 15 year olds some credit please...

... or maybe not. I was pretty dumb back then...

b) Sources with agendas are less trustworthy. 

"Agenda" is used like a dirty word here. Sounds like what the Straits Times would print heh heh. Again, name me a breathing, thinking person without an agenda. All of us go through our very mundane lives while trying to accomplish one thing or another --- that's having an AGENDA!!!

Who the f--- would go to the trouble of writing a book if he/she wasn't trying to push a particular point of view? So LKY's books are all less reliable because he's got an agenda to push? Or are we trying to differentiate between "good" and "bad" agendas? =p

This is related to point (a) about bias, so the same caveat applies.

Another thing which made my eyes roll.

If the students are expected to scrutinize the "agenda" of the author, perhaps it is only fair that they should be provided with more information about the author? All i know is that the author is Irish and American. Talk about over-generalization!!

c) Sources with viewpoints that deviate from the norm have enhanced reliability.

Where do i even start with this....?

Ok... i can see this line of reasoning working in some very specific situations, like if tomorrow's copy of the People's Daily were to excoriate Chairman Mao for the excesses of the Great Leap Forward... but....

...isn't it usually the other way around?

Maybe i misunderstood this particular point, and it is only meant for situations like what i pointed out about the People's Daily.

Even then, i don't like the way this particular point was inserted into the question, with an unsubstantiated assertion that "most Irish Americans support the IRA".

Am i supposed to conclude that, since the author is a proponent of a viewpoint that is contrary to that which is widely held by his ethnic group, he must be speaking the truth? By highlighting that "most Irish Americans support the IRA", the question seems to be nudging me towards applying this particular criteria in my evaluation of the source.

Furthermore, I am apparently not allowed to criticize the question's assumptions. If the question says Irish Americans support the IRA, that is the Gospel Truth as far as this question is concerned.

There you go, an alternative viewpoint.

I know this is a limitation of the examination format, but isn't it ironic that a school subject that is supposed to instill critical thinking is drawing rather rigid boundaries that dictate what can or cannot be critically thought about? Sounds like Our Singapore Conversation....

Oh... i see....

Good training for participation in the political process then.

d) Sources that contradict the textbook are lying!!!

See above. Sigh.

Conclusion: How i Would Answer the Question (hehehe)

The provenance of source X cannot be ascertained. There is insufficient information to draw any meaningful conclusions about the author's background, affiliations, or agenda. For all i know, this piece was written by my grandmother on the toilet bowl this morning. Real sources do not exist in the vacuum that the examiner has artificially created for this test. Give me two weeks and an internet connection, then perhaps you'll get a more substantial answer. Or maybe just a snarky, self-righteous blog post.