Monday, October 08, 2007

A poor excuse for a teacher

A polemic column by Hugo Schwyzer in today’s Inside Higher Ed bemoans “educrats” who demand that he do a better job of making sure that his students are actually learning what he is teaching. But no, Schwyzer will have none of it. Instead he’s going to fight the good fight and resist making real accommodations: “But I’m still going to teach — primarily through lecture in an ancient, top-down, one-sided way. I’m going to pour out my enthusiasm and my passion, laboring in a field filled with rocky soil and pockets of rich earth.” That latter metaphor, by the way, refers to his students. Some are just rocks who cannot absorb Schwyzer’s seeds of wisdom. The seeds just bounce off. Others times his wisdom, he tells us, “ends up in the thistles, but some of it ends up in nice, loamy earth.” And that, my friends, is what teaching is all about. At least for Schwyzer.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not against lecturing per se. Research has shown it to be useful in specific situations (not many, but there are some). And I certainly know that college students sometimes come to class in, shall we say, not quite the perfect condition to learn. And I too have had my share of edu-jargon that can make insomniacs go to sleep.

But Schwyzer’s tirade is demeaning and just plain arrogant. Let me put it as bluntly as possible at first: if your students aren’t learning, then you’re not teaching. You may be spouting, pontificating, lecturing, sowing, seeding, PowerPointing. But you’re not teaching.

Now let’s go step by step: First, faculty such as Schwyzer assume that knowledge is just transferred from their mouth to the student’s brain. Sorry. Doesn’t work that way. Read the research. Second, few faculty understand how to align objectives to assessments. Put otherwise, they just spray knowledge out there shotgun style and hope that something sticks. If they in fact actually tried an informal assessment, such as the 1-minute exit survey, they’d realize that little actual stuck. But then they’d have to go back and re-teach something. Third, the “gardener” metaphor presumes that students are just passive entities such as “rocks” or “ loamy earth.” Please. If there is one thing that the field of social psychology has taught us, it is that context matters. Teaching is always a two-way dance that consists of literally thousands of minute actions and reactions in the course of a one-hour class. So if Schwyzer’s students don’t get it, don’t blame them or those pesky educrats. Blame him.

I’d suggest he go visit one of his colleagues in the education department and actually learn something.

[cross-posted at the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog]

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