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Motherhood and Synthesis

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

There probably isn't any single group of people subject to quite as much advice as new mothers. From the moment people discover that you are expecting a baby, well-meaning advice pours in from all sides. And from the venerable Dr Spock to the Baby Whisperer, there is no shortage of books telling new parents how to parent.

I've heard from several of my contemporaries who feel overwhelmed by reading book after book on how to feed, how to treat ailments, how to sleep – oh, especially, these days, on how to sleep! Ever try to read a book on how to sleep when you're sleep-deprived? How about four or five such books? How about four or five such books that all seem to say something different?

It's at times like these when I realize just how important “real-life” synthesis skills are. Yes, it's easy to become overwhelmed when these books all seem to provide different solutions. In some cases, they even actively refute one another! How on earth do you decide which course of action is best for your little (three-AM-waking) bundle of joy?

The answer, of course, is that the best course of action involves weighing the evidence provided by the various sources, then taking the best of each and finding your own way. And this is exactly what we want our students to understand about the purpose and method of synthesis. We want them to read all the sources provided, even dissenting ones, understand them, weigh their contributions to the overall conversation, and then enter that conversation on their own terms, with their own informed position, referring to the sources for the opinions and evidence they offer in support of (or in opposition to) their own arguments. They should even be able to justify why they are using, discarding, or refuting a certain source – just as new parents  find themselves doing when confronted by the grandparents who tell them they're doing it all wrong.

Nothing drives a lesson home like a real-world application with real consequences. This may be an excellent approach to teaching synthesis to your students. Have your class brainstorm situations that are important to them, about which they are likely to get lots of opinions and advice. For example, which university should they go to? What's the best way to choose a career path? What kinds of rules or guidelines should parents exert on their children when it comes to things like internet use, dating, or managing money? Whatever they choose, it should be something that is subject to lots of “expert” opinions from different points of view – it might be that the more controversial the topic, the better (e.g. teaching birth control methods to teens), but you will have to take your school population into account as well.

From deciding on the “real-life” topic, their next step is finding good, reputable sources and building their own synthesis questions. Then, having found and weighed their sources and decided on their own position in light of the question, let them take the position of  “expert” on the topic and present their course of action either as a proposal or “how-to” in writing or orally. They should always indicate which parts of their proposals are based on the experts upon whose shoulders they have built their own approach.

To save time, you could always give them a predetermined topic like, oh, “The best way to get a baby to sleep through the night.” But, honestly, I don't know if I would be able to listen to yet another opinion on that topic!