Not a small portion of my students complain bitterly when they fill out their student evaluations of the courses I teach. The typical complaint goes like this:
He isn't organized. He frequently digresses into things that are not part of the subject and never tells us exactly what we are supposed to be learning.A more eye-opening version goes like this:
He would not tell us what things were going to be on the test so we could focus on learning them. I felt totally unprepared for the exams.Sadly such comments are becoming more frequent in the last ten years.
One of my pet peeves in education is the use of the term ‘instructor’ as a catch all for the person who is supposed to be teaching. Even dictionary.com blurs the distinction, essentially equating the two terms. And in vernacular usage people do not make much of a distinction. But if you consider the root of instructor, instruct, you get closer to the issue. To instruct means to give orders (British dictionary version) for how to do something. That is, an instructor gives instructions in the performance of a task. The term applies to, for example, flight instructors or combat instructors who give specific directions in algorithmic like sequences to people who have to learn a procedure. Such learning has little to do with the growth and development of the intellect. It is not intended to enhance thinking. Quite the opposite; it is intended to instill the procedure in tacit knowledge so that the performer doesn't have to think when doing.
Contrast that to the idea that a human being should learn how to acquire concepts, to modify them in light of new information, to manipulate them in the mind to look at them from different perspectives, and, most important, to try combinations of concepts to see if something new, a meta-concept, emerges. In other words people need to be able to think. I had always believed that the objective of ‘higher’ education was to teach people to think. And not just higher education; I believed that the whole education enterprise should be dedicated to teach people both how to think and how to do things automatically that would support their success in thinking. For example, when learning mathematics you do need to be instructed in procedures but you also need to understand what those procedures are for in real life.
Teaching should encompass both instruction in procedures, a process to guiding students to the information they will need, and challenging them to engage in thinking about concepts they construct in their minds. All of these processes are needed in order to teach students to become fully functional thinkers.
What my complaining students were telling me is that they only wanted me to instruct them in the sense of how to prepare to take an examination. They were frustrated because their entire previous experience in education appeared to be this instructional process. People generally feel comfortable receiving instructions, following them, and then being assessed on their success in assimilating the instructions. And if their entire experience had been along these lines it would be understandable that not being instructed, while being expected to construct knowledge and understanding would be extremely stressful. But that is OK. We all need to learn how to deal with stress and we especially need to learn how to learn. Your boss will not be your instructor. That isn't her job.
This last spring quarter I had some frank conversations with a few freshmen students who were in my core course on systems science. I asked them how they learned in high school, what did they have to do to succeed in their classes. I was prompted to do this because a large number of them claimed to have taken various science courses such as biology or chemistry (and claimed to have liked the subject), yet they could not answer very simple questions I would ask about those topics (I use a Socratic method style in lectures). They would say things like, “I remember we talked about that, but I don't remember exactly what it was.” How could someone take a course in biology in this day and age and not have learned something like the mechanisms at work in genetic transcription and translation for protein construction? This is so fundamental to understanding biology it seems incomprehensible that the schools are not teaching it. Yet the students proclaimed that it wasn't something that had been emphasized. I have one of my son's biology text from high school at home so I checked it out on the subject. Sure enough it is covered quite well. Any student who had actually studied this should have come away with a fairly good grasp of how the cell manufactures all its component parts. The same is true for metabolism. The book covered it well, but the students could barely remember what it was, what it did, or why.
So on probing deeper what they told me was basically this. In school they are told what is going to be on the test, explicitly. That is they are told the nature of the questions they will be asked so that they can memorize little factoids from the text books. This is almost ritual and it applies most strongly to subjects that are related to the standardized high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top. However the practice appears to be wide-spread through many academic subjects. I could see why my students were complaining now.
I would not tell them what was going to be on the test for several reasons. First I consider all of the subject to be relevant or I wouldn't have included it in the curriculum. But also, the tests I give are not the so-called (and terribly misnamed) objective exams. The latter is fine for testing the assimilation of specific facts and procedures. You can test someone's success at memorizing, for example, a mathematical procedure, like solving a quadratic equation, with such tests. There are right and wrong answers. But those kinds of tests do not assess how well the student can think. For lower-division courses I give exams that are a mix of fact/procedure learning and thinking using those facts and procedures. These students are new to the subjects and they need to build a lexicon of terms, simple relations, and procedures for things like solving problems and communications. But they also need to start getting used to displaying an ability to think about the subject. So at least 50% of the exams will be asking open-ended questions (short answer) for which there are good answers (i.e., putting ideas together in a logical way) but there are not purely right answers. Many, perhaps most of the students hate this.
In upper division courses, especially electives, the situation changes and all of my exams and project assignments require a high degree of thinking. Generally most of the students have finally matured to a point that they can understand the reasons for this, though there are still a few who complain.
There are probably several factors that contribute to the devolution of education to becoming essentially vocational-like instruction. Certainly the NCLB-type high stakes testing that has become the norm for so-called ‘accountability’ has reinforced the practice since the emphasis on passing the tests puts pressure on teachers as well as students. Their jobs are on the line. The whole system is pressed to performance as defined by objective measures, a significant proportion of students producing ‘right’ answers. But the tendency to rely on objective exams has been a feature of school education for a long time. Let's face it. Such exams are easy to prepare and grade. They only probe the surface of student learning and reduce the burden on teachers, especially considering the issue of class sizes. Since the measure of student success is the grade point average (GPA) and teachers surely want to see their students succeed, it is quite natural that they resort to teaching to the test. The pattern is widespread and deeply established in the hall of academia. Additionally the use of student evaluations of courses, by administrators desperate for a convenient “objective” measure of teaching effectiveness, again for accountability, produces a subtle pressure on teachers to ‘please’ the students. Their actions need not be the result of conscious decisions to do so. The effect comes through the subconscious bias that follows from basically understanding that their jobs could be on the line if the students aren't happy. In public higher education this effect is amplified by the issue of “retention”, or keeping students in school so that the graduation numbers look good. If you flunk out too many students or too many quit from frustration then you look bad and the social milieu will frown on you.
Irony of Ironies
Hardly a week goes by when I don't read a news item about how American education is failing to produce enough scientists and engineers. Many articles are about how schools are failing. The calls for reform are echoed from every corner of society. I talk directly to employers who are very vocal about how graduates they hire can't think. They can't communicate. They can't learn on their own. They might have good skills (say at programming), but cannot figure out how to analyse complex problems or design complex solutions.
The louder the din is about how education is failing the more pressure there is to double down on accountability. And since the only thing most educators know how to do is focus on facts and procedures, that is where the effort will go. It will accomplish exactly the opposite of what is needed.
More ironic still is the belief that somehow on-line education will solve these problems. I expect it to exacerbate the situation considerably. My own opinion is that on-line learning might work for, say, special topic courses, especially graduate level courses in professional fields. But to believe that whole baccalaureate programs can be delivered on-line and that the students will actually learn how to think in that subject is to be ignoring everything modern psychology of learning has to tell us about how people actually learn.
The more our society panics about the failures of education the more they will do the exact wrong things. They want an inexpensive, quick solution to education reform. But the reality is that there is no magic bullet that can replace teachers who help students learn to think. It is inherently an expensive enterprise. Society invests in doing a good job so that it will benefit in the future when those graduates are active in the workforce and as citizens. But society has chosen to do the exact opposite. They want to find cheap ways which invariably rely on putting the burden (as well as the blame) on teachers. And that attitude will simply produce a much worse situation.
I love my job. I love working with students who have finally gotten the fact that learning isn't the job of the teacher. I love being able to explore ideas such as I write about in these blogs. I love to exercise my intellect and challenge students to do the same. But there are parts of the job that are definitely unlovable! I do not like the whole process of assessment based on there being right and wrong answers. I do not like the grading system that only rewards successes and punishes failures when, in fact, most people learn more from failures than successes. I do not like having to be the bad guy who forces lower-division students to have to think when they have literally been trained to not do so. But I accept these negative parts and the responsibility for being accountable to their long-term interests even as they see me as their enemy. It goes with the job.
Every once in awhile I get a communique from a former student who has been out in the world for a while. And those communiques make it all worthwhile. A not atypical message will say something to the effect:
I have to confess when I took your course I really hated it. But I have found out that you were really right about learning to think. I started practising what you said and today I am a chief designer for my company. Just wanted to say thanks. And also apologize for giving you low scores on the student evals.
Teaching isn't (just) training. It is a whole constellation of guidance skills. But mostly it has to be about getting students to think well. It has become a steep uphill battle in recent years thanks to society's penchant for cheap and fast preparation for specialist jobs being the basis for education. I'm just glad I got to work in the field while there was still some semblance of rationality abiding. I just feel sorry for the masses who are moving inexorably toward deep ignorance as a result of being educated in the US.