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"Passive Aggressive. It works for my mother, it works for Duolingo" Luis Von Ahn , co-founder of Duolingo from his TED talk, How to make learning as addictive as social media.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

You only have what they wrote.

In the most recent carnival of home schooling there was a post entitled Beyond Homeschooling your kids: Radical Unschooling? by June Tree at The Digerati Life. At first glance, it is a seemingly benign piece about the author's first experience with the concept of unschooling. But the way the author pieced her work together seemed like she was misstating facts about home schooling or giving her opinion under the guise of facts.

So I set out a carefully worded critique of her work. Evaluating what she said on a point by point basis. I showed my work to my editor/wife and she said it read like I was mad or offended. My wife knew I was not mad or offended. But she reminded me that others who read my blog don't know me, they only have what I write to go on. So if my thoughts are not worded correctly or explained carefully enough, the author can misconstrue my intent.

I then thought about Ms. Tree's piece. I don't know her. So I only had her written words to determine what point she was making and why she was making it.

Here are a few examples of how editorial choices can affect your reader's perception:

In her opening paragraph, Ms. Tree says that home schooling is rare and then says parenthetically that it's illegal in other countries. This was rather confusing to me. Based solely on how she wrote that sentence, it seemed like she was saying that homeschooling was rare because it's illegal in other countries. Which is ridiculous! It also made me wonder if she was being purposely misleading by not saying some other countries. She had a link to an article that said that homeschooling is illegal in Germany but the source article went on to say that such illegality is uncommon in Europe.

So the reader is forced to draw one of two conclusions: 1) the author made grammatical errors that turned a benign statement into a controversial one. 2) The author really thinks that homeschooling is illegal in all other countries and thinks that is the reason why it is rare in the U.S.

Another problem I noticed in Ms. Tree's writing was that at times it seems like she is stating facts and others offering opinions. At one point it made me think that the author was possibly stating her opinions at facts. To make it more confusing the author didn't use documentation for her facts. But again if they were only opinions, she doesn't need documentation.

For example, in Ms. Tree's second paragraph she states:

There are reasons for this — usually some circumstances make it easier to keep a child homeschooled (sic) for a period of time, maybe a family decides to move to a new place and needs adjustment, maybe it’s a conscious choice to try a new educational methodology, or for some, it may just be a cheaper option (after all, even public schools these days are trotting out the donation boxes more often and sponsoring more and more fundraisers).

When she says there are reasons for this and then says usually, that reads to me like a fact. It seems that the author is saying the main reason most people home school for a short time due to outside circumstances. Then the author speculates on what she thinks those sources maybe, so I was unclear as to whether the author was passing off unsubstantiated opinion as fact or speculating on the reasons why people home educate.

Again, I only have what she wrote to go on.

So what, you may ask? Why are you making such a big deal about this? There have been many articles over the years about homeschooling that contain wholesale inaccuracies of home schooling. Where the writers seemingly make up their own facts. This article may have inadvertently seemed like another one of those. It just reminded me how important it is when you write, to make sure that what you wrote conveys what you wanted it to.

I am not saying that Ms. Tree is trying to do a hatchet job on home schooling or unschooling. I actually thought the tone of her piece conveyed a genuine desire to open a dialogue on the subject. However, the above examples may lead readers to believe she has already formed her opinion and is trying to open a debate, rather than a dialogue. The tone and the words themselves don't seem to match.

The struggle of good writing is to be factual, clear and be able to write what you feel inside so it is clear to someone who doesn't know you outside of your writings. This is especially important when writing about hot topics. Through Ms. Tree's original piece and my aborted attempt to critique it point by point, I've been reminded how important and difficult this process is.


jugglingpaynes said...

Thanks for discussing this. I was also confused about the intent of that particular article. If you read further down in the comments, she also agrees with one of her commenters that homeschooled children lack necessary socialization. Of course, I read it soon after the carnival was posted, so I don't know if she ever changed her mind about this.

I usually have my husband and daughter edit my writing. :o)

Peace and Laughter,

christinethecurious said...

Editing; very important, good points

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