Saturday, June 1, 2013

"Mere" copying vs. Ctrl + C

As a number of commenters on this blog have observed, copying things by hand can involve active engagement and substantial learning--much more than is generally assumed.

Most people draw a big distinction between creating accurate drawings of actual objects or scenes, on the one hand, vs. copying, line by line or letter by letter, a picture, diagram, manuscript, or text, on the other. While the former may sometimes be worthwhile, the latter, surely, is the epitome of mindless, rote behavior.

But give it an honest try, and you quickly see that it's one thing to simply view or read a picture or diagram or paragraph or poem, and quite another to observe all the interlocking details closely enough to create a faithful reproduction. Consider, for example, what Catherine Johnson reports about someone who had to copy illuminated manuscripts by hand:

The library she was working in wouldn't let her make Xeroxes, so she had to painstakingly copy each character. As she copied, she suddenly became able to tell where each one began and ended and to recognize each letter as well (I think that's how the story went). I think this principle probably works with sentences, reading, and grammar, btw. If a student copies a sentence word-for-word, I **think** he or she is going to start to see the chunks.
It is out of these considerations that I routinely have my daughter, for example, copy maps and poems during home school--as well as read out loud sophisticated passages that she might otherwise scan too quickly to fully appreciate.

The kind of copying that's truly mindless is that which is preferred by our 21st century schools: Ctrl + C or Print Screen or digital scanner. A few strokes of a keyboard, however much time it frees up for other things, can never substitute for the focused attention and internalization of detail that good old fashioned copying puts you through.


Auntie Ann said...

I was a physics major in college, and many profs let you bring a single-page cheat-sheet into a final. Creating the page was essentially copying: writing down all of the equations and laws. But, once the test began, the sheet usually sat there unused, or only glanced at once or twice.

It was the act of creating it that was important. It was the research that went into it, the thoughts about structuring it, and the copying it down that made it useful. Once it was written, it was unneeded.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

On a related note, that's why I don't give my students a review sheet, even though they might beg for one (talking about college students here, not younger ones). Ideally, if they go through the material and think about what we've covered, trying to sort out the key concepts and put things into some sort of hierarchy, it would go a long ways in terms of preparing for a test. It's a far more useful study tool for them than if I just passed out a sheet and said, "Here, these are the things you need to know."

Of course it's a lot more work on their part, which is why they don't like it. Far easier for the teacher to do all the studying for them, and then complain afterwards that the test was too hard.

Hainish said...

"Do you see it yet?"

"No," I replied. "I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before."