Group analysis of texts


A Teaching Tactic from Associate Professor Matthew del Nevo of the Catholic Institute of Sydney which helps students to improve their analytical skills.

Context

The subject area is philosophy within Humanities in the Christian Tradition, but the tactic is widely usable. The context is a class that you can divide into small groups who have done a reading in common.

Pedagogical Purpose

The pedagogical purpose is to improve analytical reading and thinking skills by practice. The subject is a text, preferably one of classic status, at least something creatively and intelligently written.  In my class we were using model pieces of academic writing that formed a debate about God over several decades from the Oxbridge world, but which spilled across to America, to Alvin Plantinga and suchlike. But for this tactic, the content is not the main thing, but the practice.

Strategy

The strategy then goes like this. You ask the students in small groups to find the main point. Not just to give a summary statement but to find where in the text the author states what he/she is getting at here.  There may be more than one answer as the author may say what he/she is getting at more than once in different words or ways.  The instructor collates these by writing them up and then the class can examine if they are all correct, and which one is perhaps the best and, importantly, why.  This done, the groups then go back to the text to look for supporting arguments.  What the instructor does is diagram these on the whiteboard (or whatever instrument they are using).  Say there are four or five supporting arguments. Again the actual quotation of the text is required, not abstractions from it or summary statements.

Then the instructor asks students to look for contra statements that the author has ostensibly refuted.  The instructor may also ask if the students can think of any additional contra statements – or any additional supporting statements that the author didn’t think of.  These may then be added into the diagram.  Then the instructor asks – and this is the hard part – what the criteria are for these supporting statements. A criteria is the presupposed value-base that the supporting arguments are raised out of.  This is usually, basically, an opinion, or it could be a particular kind of faith stance (whether religious or scientific), or a moral stance, depending on the kind of text.

Why is it effective?

This tactic is effective because students can transfer the analytical skills into any intellectual study of the humanities that involves studious reading (i.e. not reading as information gathering). It is a plain analytical tactic, not an exegetical method or a hermeneutic. Any kind of review work requires it. Students can use the skill as well to reflect on their own writing and the strength of their own arguments.  Examining a text along these lines helps students to give reasons, to think “to their contrary” of their reasons, and to realize that they are governed by criteria that may be questionable, or may be under fire and require strong defence.

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