Backpacker's Guide Colleges

Bring your thoughts together

Photo: K. Murali Kumar  

Last year, I learnt a simple and efficient way to fold plastic bags, from a young woman who had learnt it from her grandmother. We now call it the ‘samosa’ fold, as it makes a small triangle that can then be neatly stacked away — a handy space-saving approach. Her grandmother had a particular talent for packing a lot of things into small spaces. The young woman described how she and her sister, having emptied the contents of their grandmother’s compactly arranged closet, struggled to fit everything back the same way, with the same neat efficiency: “It seemed like there was so much more to put back than we had taken out!”

Many of us might identify with that. When we travel, our suitcases seem to comfortably hold their contents, clothes and accessories packed in disciplined piles. And when we return, even if we haven’t added anything, we find it difficult to fit it all back in, partly because all those pressed clothes are now worn and have somehow expanded!

As children, some of us may have itched to take apart every functioning gadget in the house, and, having done it, stared in confusion at the messy pile of parts that we couldn’t put together again.

And again, a similar sensation after having taken copious notes from a variety of sources in the process of gathering information for a term paper or a research project. We “unpack” a dense idea by exploring it through the words of many writers, by referring to a number of articles and books that deal with it. All those parts of the idea lie on the pages of our note books, or in the many electronic files on our laptop. How to now put them together so that they make sense again?

Granted, all these things — folding something in the most economical way, packing, unpacking and re-packing a suitcase, taking apart and rebuilding a physical object, and figuratively “unpacking” an idea or a topic and re-constructing it in our own way — are quite different, yet they all depend to some extent on a similar approach. A simple one in the case of a closet and its contents, and a more complex one in the case of an idea or a set of ideas (some might say it’s the other way around). When we take a gadget apart, it’s important to take note of how the individual elements relate to each other, so that we can put it together again in the same way. We want to understand its structure, analyse it, and then rebuild it in the same way, following the same design.

With ideas, our intention is a bit different, a bit more complex. As we try to “dissect” an idea, we explore its different aspects from a variety of angles. It’s like taking multiple pictures from many sides. We examine each of these bits of information — analyse them — and then we have to put them all together, but this time, in our own way. Here, we are synthesising the information into a new form, developing our own understanding of it along the way. The important thing is that this synthesis must make sense, it must fit the components together in a way that tells a believable story.

Just as the shape of the suitcase or the size and design of the closet determines how exactly you will put back the clothes or objects that belong in them, so too the purpose, the length of the paper you have to write, the expectations of the audience, all determine how you will put those ideas together. They need to fit together in a convincing manner, telling a story that is logical yet creative, drawing on what has been written but presenting it in your own way.

Most of us are able to get through the first step with relative ease. Taking apart things, the act of exploration, seems less daunting than the second, where we have to put them together again.

Synthesis involves going back and forth between the parts and the whole, looking at how they relate to each other. It can help to visualise this with a concept map that shows these relationships clearly — sort of like thinking through how you will pack a suitcase in a way that doesn’t leave any fragile objects with too much room to move around. It is then a matter of describing the map, its contents and all the connections.

Writing a paper, studying for an examination, thinking through a research question… each of these is like taking apart something with a view to putting it together again.

In some cases, the act of putting together is nothing more than showing you understand (as in an exam) while in others, it is about showing you understand enough to manipulate the parts in creative, new, and useful ways.

And how exactly do we use old building blocks in new ways? Well, that’s a whole other discussion!

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. Email:

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 12:37:56 PM |

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