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Why Synthesis Matters

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

As part of my last-minute review for the AP® Language exam with my students, I ran them through a "speed-dating" activity, in which they rotated through a series of practice argument prompts for about five minutes at a time, then debriefed together for about two to three minutes at a time.

In one of the intervals, I asked them, instead of rotating to another prompt, to take the same prompt, but argue a different position. In their debrief, I asked them to discuss the experience of taking that other position. Some of them reported that they had to think more carefully about their arguments, but that it contributed to their being more careful about how they argued. We also discussed the pitfalls of allowing emotional attachment to a subject to lead to a rant instead of a measured and persuasive argument, and why it's important to consider the other side in developing your own position.

This strategy of taking the other side is just one example of why, ultimately, the synthesis question is so important to the principles of this particular AP® course. The best synthesis is a dialogue between different positions, with the student's own argument taking into account the ideas from multiple sources, including opposing ones. A hallmark of the writer with weaker synthesis skills is reliance on only those materials that support one's own opinion, while ignoring that there are other ways of examining the same question.

Students may think that these skills are confined to a single exam or even to the assignments created for a single course, but in fact, understanding this core principle of synthesis is fundamental to making our students informed, responsible citizens. After all, we're all guilty at one point or another of the kind of lazy thinking that marks bad synthesis, and sometimes it can have effects that are further-reaching than the classroom.

I've been following this series by education blogger Clay Burell about breaking free of the biased visions of textbooks by entering into dialogue with them. Burell gives consideration to wikis as places where students can generate their own "textbooks." His emphasizes students' critical reading of sources to arrive at their own conclusions -- the essence of synthesis.

And it's especially important for students to know that textbooks -- and other print materials -- are not 100 percent authoritative, but that they should invite critical examination. I'm with him in being leery of any given group dominating the textbook publishing industry, essentially conveying to students that there is only one version of the truth.

The enlightened approach to encountering a version of the truth that you don't like isn't to ignore it. And it's not to discount it wholesale, either. The enlightened approach to encountering a version of the truth that you don't like is to discuss it, question it, and seek answers to your questions from different sources. That's what Mark Lukach, a social sciences teacher in Portola Valley, California, did that got him featured in this New York Times article talking about reactions to Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff.

The article tells us that some parents shut down use of the video in classrooms because they didn't buy Leonard's version of the truth. Lukach didn't buy Leonard's version of the truth wholesale either, but instead of stunting his students' intellectual growth with censorship, he encouraged his students to question the video's message, using podcasts to pose their challenges.

This is a man who understands the importance of synthesis in a world that is, paradoxically, both drawn together and polarized by the power of the internet. As more bloggers preach to their ever-tightening choirs, few are willing to challenge the predominant views espoused by their readers. Similarly, most people who watch Leonard's video divide into camps of Agree/Disagree. How many Qualify? I know I didn't, at first.

Well, Mark's exercise in asking for qualification of Leonard's claims won him the attention of students at another school, who responded in their own videos, establishing an authentic peer-collaboration learning opportunity (to use some really jargony language). But, perhaps more exciting for the students, Leonard herself caught wind of the whole enterprise, and agreed to discuss the ideas behind her video with his students.

As Mark says, "When Annie Leonard saw our video response, it was sort of like the first time she heard from the outside world and wanted further engagement about her topic. She was fired up, contacted us, and then met us." But, just as importantly, Mark's students learned, as he notes on Burell's blog in a comment, that "their voices can matter. If they say it right, they are not necessarily just shouting into the void, but can potentially find themselves face-to-face with the distant person they want answers from in the first place."

Synthesis thus becomes a real-world experience, a chance to see what being willing to question the sources can lead to.

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.