Monday, March 24, 2014

Failure! The very word is like a bell...


The "what am I doing with my life" crisis is by no means exclusive to teaching, but teaching sure is conducive to it.  I've been eyeing an unappetizing stack of student essays for nearly a week now.  It's just been sitting there on my dining room table, and I have been finding multiple ways to put off grading it.  This isn't garden variety procrastination.  No, I've been avoiding this stack because I intuitively know that somewhere--maybe two or three papers into the pile--resides my annual existential confrontation with failure. 

It's something that happens every year (and increasingly every semester). Sooner or later, I must face the fact that I fail far more often than I succeed.  Sure, anyone who's taught for a while can point to a few success stories. But so what?  The truth remains that the majority of students who have passed through my classroom have been singularly unaffected by the experience. 

Only a fool would think otherwise.    

Ironically, I was talking to my First-Year Seminar students about failure just before Spring Break.  I had asked them to write about an academic experience in which they failed or under performed. They each spent a few minutes writing down their experiences (anonymously).   Then I asked them to provide an explanation on the back of their paper for this failure.  

Next we went over some research that showed that our explanations for failure correlate to our success. Those who attribute poor performance to a lack of innate ability (I'm just not a math person, I never understand poetry, etc.) are far more likely to give up and fail.  But those who attribute failure to changeable variables (I could have done better with more time or if I worked harder, etc.) were far more likely to succeed.  

In other words, a fixed view of intelligence becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  This is one of the reasons I don't like pedagogy emphasizing learning styles (even that nonsense about Audio/Visual/Kinesthetic learners).  A kid hears one time that he's a "hands-on" learner and that's that.  He now has every reason he needs to give up in a history class.  

Anyway, after we went over the research (and watched a short video on the effects of fixed notions of intelligence in testing situations), I asked my students to mix up all their explanations of failure and then categorize them into the fixed or flexible camps of intelligence.  How many attributed failure to an innate lack of  ability?  How many to variables of effort, environment, time, etc?  The result was about half and half.

I know this research.  I teach this research.  And the idea that intelligence or ability is not fixed is practically my pedagogical religion.  Nevertheless, I also know that three papers into that stack will be prima facie evidence of my innate failure as a professor.  Okay, sure, maybe if I had had more time, or a different bunch of students, or worked a little harder, or found more creative and innovative ways to engage my students' minds, blah, blah, blah-ty frickin' blah.  No, stop kidding yourself.  You failed to teach this unit very well. You always do.  Maybe it is really just you...

It is one of the great ironies in life that the very lessons we teach are always--always--the hardest for us to learn. 

Now, then, where was I?  Ah, yes.  Back to my stack.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

You're not getting it.

One of my students came up to me this week just as class was ending and said, "Maybe I'm just dumb or something, but I try to read and it doesn't make any sense. I just can't get it."

Unfortunately I had to race to the other end of campus to teach another class in less than 10 minutes, so I didn't have much time to talk to him.  All I could do was reassure him that he  wasn't dumb and that I knew the texts I had assigned were challenging.  In the past eight weeks he's had to tackle sections of Saint Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Machiavelli, Luther and now Shakespeare.

I told him I don't expect him to be an expert on this stuff, but I do expect him to read and come to class ready to discuss what he didn't understand. The more he reads and writes and discusses, the more he'll understand.  It's a process.  I go over all this the first week of class, but students' mental models change slowly.  And this guy--like many of my students--operates with a model that equates learning with getting it.  This is exactly what I don't want him to do.

The verb to get means "to come into possession of; to receive."  Getting it implies there is some stable, discrete set of facts or ideas that can be neatly packaged, transported and unpacked.  First I had it.  Then  I gave it to him and now he's got it.  That's not education.  That's playing cooties.

How do I explain that I want him to construct something, not get something?  I want him to say, "You know what's really weird?  The very actions that got crooked politicians and popes placed in Dante's hell are being recommended as sound political advice in Machiavelli's The Prince."  And then I will reply, "You're right. That is pretty weird.  What do you think we should make of this insight?"

Indeed, everything I'm doing in the course is designed to forge connections and draw distinctions between texts, historical eras and the past and present.  I can't make these connections for students (much as they want me to). If I do--even just to show them an example of what I mean--that exact connection will show up in their next response.

Getting it is actually pretty easy. Working out the connections between things is, well, work. The task for the students is to make me get it, not them.  Show me how you got there.

Yesterday I emailed my student and tried to explain all this to him. I also offered him some tips and encouragement. I fully expect he'll be frustrated with my response.

Monday, March 3, 2014

" I permit to speak at every hazard..."


So we finished Gulliver's Travels in the first-year honors seminar on Friday, and my little project to get the students talking more seems to be working.

On Monday I had them discuss the second voyage, especially the Brobdingnag King's declaration that we were the most "odious race of vermin nature ever suffered to crawl upon the face of the earth."  I split them into four groups and gave them 25 minutes to mount a defense of humanity to a race of aliens who had decided we were verminous.  Each group got five minutes to defend while the other groups gave them alien rebuttals.

On Wednesday they went into groups again to compare technology today to the crackpot schemes Gulliver encountered in the Academy of Lagado.  I mean really.  Is getting ethanol from corn any less crazy than extracting sunlight from cucumbers?   On Friday I asked them to propose their own questions and lead discussion over the fourth voyage.  Me?  I stood around a lot, listening, watching them argue and shrugging my shoulders whenever they looked up at me to see if they were on the right track.  They call this teaching with your mouth shut.  I hate to admit it, but it's often the best teaching I do.

Sure it can be frustrating watching them go down a conversational dead end, but they will find their way out of it if you wait long enough.  It's better than me droning on because it's learning they have constructed.  It's usually the right answer, too.

This is the upshot of the famous penny test, which I've swiped and used over the years to show students the advantages of group learning.  The exercise works like this: you show students a sheet with 15 versions of the face of a U.S. penny (Lincoln facing left, right; the date, motto and elements variously scrambled).  Then you ask each student to individually select the correct representation. With a large class you may have as many as 10 different answers.


Then put the students into groups of four or five.  Tell them they can only have one answer per group. Within 10 minutes the entire room talks itself  into two answers (one of these will be right and the other will differ in only one small detail).

I've done this many  times and it's amazing how just getting them talking to each other, comparing assumptions, eliminating possibilities and finding consensus improves their accuracy and understanding.  I guess it doesn't matter how you get them to run the ideas through their heads (writing, testing, talking), just so long as you do.

The give-and-take of ideas is something we do quite easily.  For hundreds of thousands of years people sat around a fire, talking and teaching each other how to knap spear points. A yakking professor in front of a lecture hall is actually a fairly recent innovation. And I'm not sure it's much of an improvement.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...