Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How much is enough?

Younger son's homework is to choose a country and find out about it.  He has a list of questions.  What is the climate like?   Does it rain?  Is it hot?   What animals live there?   What about the culture?

We found something about animals in "Planet Earth", a BBC related book he was given by a friend.  We found the names of three ("mountain monkey", kodkod, a small wild cat, and the pudu, the world's smallest deer, in case you want to guess which country it might be!).  

It was the weather that made me write this.   The country in question is so large that the climate in different parts of it is very different.  Some parts are very high, and cold, some parts are very far from the Equator and also a bit cold, but other parts are equatorial and tropical.   So what is the answer to the question on the sheet?  What would the answer be if the country was the UK?  Would it depend who you asked?  How much detail is required?   We went for an answer about how there was a range of climate, which is a way did not answer the question.

It made me think: how much detail was needed?   Was I thinking too hard about the question, which after all was designed for a 7 year old, not a *@ year old parent.  Was a quick to write sentence what was needed, even if it was not the whole story?  Was the point to be able to write something, or to realise that climate is different in different countries?

Then I thought, what about the level of detail needed when thinking about literature searching?   What a first year undergraduate needs to be able to do is different from a PhD researcher or systematic reviewer.   What a clinician looking for evidence for practice needs to find will be different from that systematic reviewer.  I think I knew this, but had not really thought about how it was ok not to go into detail or give what I, as an experienced searcher, thought was the complete answer.  An answer that enables people to do what they need to, at that time, is the one to look for.

The point of my son's question was not to test the knowledge or information finding powers of the parent, or to write a complete account, but to look for particular qualities in the student, which suggests that an answer incomplete to the parent is ok.

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