The basis for poetry and scientific discovery is the ability to comprehend the unlike in the like and the like in the unlike.
Judging the quality of a thing in isolation is hard. Is this wine good? What about this restaurant? This cheese? This television programme? This child’s essay? But just because we’re bad at making meaningful judgements doesn’t mean we’re aware of experiencing any uncertainty. Uncertainty is uncomfortable and as cognitive psychologist and psychophysicist (who knew that was a thing?) Donald Laming puts it, “In such a state of mind people are unable to resist extraneous suggestion.” The fact most of the time we are unaware of this suggestion just makes the influence of unconscious bias all the more persuasive. Most of us rush to judgement secure and certain that we’re right. Sometimes we boast of relying on our intuition of trusting a hunch and going with our gut.
Relying on intuition will lead us into unconsciously using heuristics and falling into a range of cognitive traps and biases. In order to escape some of the grossest errors of judgment, we must mistrust the illusion of certainty and seek to avoid entirely predictable cognitive biases such as the anchoring effect, availability bias, the halo effect, base rate fallacy and so. As I’ve argued before, I think there’s an evolutionary explanation for our preference for certainty which makes it almost impossible to resist.
Laming goes so far as to suggest that “There is no absolute judgment. All judgments are comparisons of one form or another.” Our sensory equipment is incapable of adequately distinguishing between different shades of colour, auditory tones, distances, smells and even pain. We’re much better – although far from perfect – at making direct comparisons when two things are in front of us.
But this also something for English teachers to consider. After I spoke about Threshold Concepts in English at researchED, a number of people asked me why I hadn’t included comparison, after all, comparison gets its own assessment objective at GCSE:
AO3: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts
The point of exams is to differentiate between students of different ability. Surely if this is something which is explicitly assessed it must be something many students struggle to do well otherwise what would be the point of assessing it? Comparison is certainly a concept, but it’s not, I think, a Threshold Concept. Comparison is something we seem to be hardwired to do. To return to the questions in the open paragraph, we judge how good a bottle of wine is by comparing it to other bottles of wine we’ve drunk. We decide that this TV programme is better or worse than other TV programmes and we’re often prompted to change our assessment of children’s work when we realise the marks we’ve given it are too high or low compared to the marks we’ve awarded other essays.
Whenever I’ve taught students to compare texts, I’ve begun by showing them how easy it is to compare. For instance, what do these two objects have in common?
And what’s the difference? Easy isn’t it? Judgements are formed by pointing out similarities and differences.
After this straightforward start, I’d ask for a couple of emotionally robust volunteers and ask the class to compare them. After the nervous giggling and the blinding obvious were out of the way, their apparently innate ability to compare revealed layers of detail which might easily have gone overlooked when analysing in isolation. When we see things side by side sometimes this illuminates qualities of which we were previously unaware.
Then we move on to carefully selected texts. Poems are a good place to start as they’re short and can be easily viewed side by side. I’d recommend a brace of sonnets as they’ll have lots of immediately obvious similarities as well as differences.
Students should find it simple to spot similarities in terms of form, theme and language. This done, looking for differences becomes much more focused and interesting. With a modest amount of modelling* and scaffolding, students are well on the way to writing a comparative essay. It certainly pays to explicitly teach students to use a range of discourse markers to signpost their comparisons and contrasts, but what really differentiates between students is how well they know the texts they are comparing and how skilled they are at all the other assessment objectives.
Writing literary essays might be hard, but comparison is easy.
*Here’s one I prepared earlier:
And here’s a link to me talking about this stuff for a radio show that was never aired.