Doc Carney

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Archive for April, 2010

Philosophy of Teaching Series: Postulate #10

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

10. That learning is taking place is the essential justification for whatever activity engages the time and energies of learner and teacher. Institutional functions associated with screening and credentialing (grades, degrees, etc.) are subordinate and ancillary to learning, and may even interfere if allowed.

Of all the tasks faced by teachers in the modern college or university, the most difficult is to overcome the mechanical “checklist” mentality encouraged by institutionally-structured degree and course requirements. For decades, Americans have believed that a baccalaureate and more advanced degrees are essential tickets to social advancement and economic opportunity. To secure employment in a good job–a white-collar job–has been the obsession of generations of upwardly-mobile Americans. Other sorts of work–blue-collar work– has been shunted off as undesirable, in part because manual work has wrongly been assumed to be only mindless factory or mill work rather than the skilled work of a welder , a carpenter, or a mechanic. But even these are often seen as dirty, servile, and demeaning jobs, not fit for the children of the Middle Class if they can avoid it.

Avoiding it has been one of the primary social goals of the explosive growth of higher education in the decades since the Second World War. As it has turned out, however, much of the so-called white-collar work available in the modern world has not required the learning of specific subjects or of a particular body of knowledge, but rather the development of what might be called cognitive and personality traits–the ability and, more importantly, the willingness to learn; quickly and mostly autonomously. Business and industrial personnel officials have repeatedly made clear that they are less concerned with what prospective employees learn in college than they are that the prospects submitted themselves to the middle-class discipline that can be readily demonstrated by the successful completion of a college degree.

Many recruiters of entry-level employees say that even transcript grades are of little or no interest to them, that a would-be employer cannot use college grades as a predictor of success in their firms. They assume that just getting through the college or university system is enough of a test, that the wheat has already been separated from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. Each firm will teach and train the recently-graduated and newly-employed workers (yes, workers) themselves in what is to be done. To the dismay of many, such work often turns out to be the white-collar equivalent of the drudgery of the assembly line or the rock pile–work done in cubicles and requiring less intelligence and creativity than would be mandatory for even a mediocre auto mechanic.

This last observation helps bring out a mostly-ignored reality: a lot of college students would rather be doing something else with their lives instead of fulfilling degree requirements so that after college they can take up boring and mentally-stultifying work in “praire dog country”–where people’s heads pop up periodically from their cubicles. Some would rather spend their lives out-of-doors expertly trimming trees or roses, or in the workshop building fine furniture or snow boards, or in the kitchen lovingly cooking food for grateful diners, or any kind of hand-on work that is not mindless or demeaning but instead requires great skill and intelligence. I don’t need to point out that in modern times society as a whole dismisses these kinds of employment as demeaning, and in part for this reason underpays those so employed. The quandary faced by many an adult student, then, is that he may have to pursue work he doesn’t really want to do and for which he is not temperamentally suited so he can have a decent income. In order to do what he really wants to do he will probably have to accept low pay, few benefits, and even less social status and esteem.

But he’ll have accept a number of things first. He’ll have to start checking off the sometimes opaque list of requirements foisted on him by university faculties (who too often believe they offer the gift of the gods, gifts no sane person could refuse). Reared in a modern, task-oriented and mechanical society, and inured with the assumption that “process” will conquer all, students often take, quite naturally, a mechanical approach to their studies. They want all details of their assessment and evaluation spelled out and made contractually explicit. They insist that no work be given for which there will not be afforded the opportunity for “points.” Since their college or university calculates their “grade-point average” to two decimal places, and since decisions regarding scholarships and other resources are sometimes made at the thin edge of one-hundredth of a grade point (2.99 rather than the minimum 3.00), students frequently indulge a similar false precision by demanding a rigorous and niggling accounting of exam and paper scores. It is not unfair to suggest that the maximization and wheedling that characterizes modern economic life is reflected in the mentality of students desperately hopeful the system-at-large will do right by them in the end.

To be practical, no teacher can ignore any of the mechanical realities and obsessions that nearly consume some of his students. What the teacher can do, though, is to push back, subtly and deftly, against the encroachment of such considerations on the real work at hand. He may have to play along with the wheedling and the niggling, lest they take on even greater importance than they already have. In the end, though, he must bring the student back to the real work and help him to take that work as seriously as the student takes his grade points.

[Here is the original article, "My Philosophy of Teaching" (opens in new window).  For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]

Philosophy of Teaching Series: Postulate #9

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Elaboration of the Thirteen Postulates continues:

9. For an adult, the most important work of learning takes place away from the presence of the teacher. The teacher points to the work to be done and the learner does it, either alone or in voluntary association with other learners working on the same materials.

The principle that most of life’s tasks must be done at the individual level is readily accepted in a number of real circumstances. The basketball player understands his coach cannot shoot his baskets for him. The player himself must shoot them, and he must practice, and practice, and practice (on his own) until he can do so reliably and with subtle control. Usually, the coach doesn’t even set foot on the court. He stands on the sidelines and yells. Similarly, the movie director doesn’t practice the actor’s lines, the weight-traininer doesn’t lift the weights (except for his own training), and the drill sergeant doesn’t fire the weapons in target practice. Likewise, the parish priest confesses only his own sins and not those of an individual parishioner (there is no such thing as a group confession), and the physician doesn’t take the medicine he prescribes for his patients–each must do so himself by carefully following instructions.

All of these circumstances are perfectly analogous to the realities of the teacher-learner relationship. The teacher proposes and the learner disposes. A good rule of thumb is that an adult learner in a college or university setting should spend three hours outside of “class” for every hour spent inside. These “outside” hours are properly spent studying assigned readings (not just reading them), conducting assigned research, and in filling in the holes of his background preparation: looking up words, revisiting a forgotten (or never known) principle or concept needed for the current study. With a ratio of three-to-one, only twenty-five percent of a college student’s time is spent in the presence of his teacher.

[Here is the original article, "My Philosophy of Teaching" (opens in new window).  For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]

Philosophy of Teaching Series: Postulate #8

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

8. The organization of teaching and learning into courses, classes, schools, colleges, and universities are for matters only of logistical convenience and the allocation of scarce communal (e.g., public) resources. The individual teacher-learner connection remains the essence of education in spite of the appearance of collective activity.

500-Seat Lecture Hall

This will seem like nonsense to many, but students are aggregated into classes and treated en masse because there is no way around it for the bulk of the schooling that takes place in the modern world. In the best of all possible worlds, there would be one teacher for each learner, or at least each teacher would, at any given moment, work exclusively with a single learner. The great bulk of what is called “teaching method” or “praxis” in university departments of education would then be unnecessary. Gone would be the problems of “behavior management” and of “diversity”–the fact that a single classroom necessarily contains students of varying socio-economic, racial, and family backgrounds, and students of varying talents or challenges. They all have to treated as a group, as a collective, and special training is understandible needed to deal with it.

On its face, this would seem like a problem of industrial production–how to mass produce education. The problems of mass education, though, are greater than those of the mass production of manufactured goods. Factory managers have nearly full control over the raw materials they allow in to their processes. They can demand uniformity and “quality control” of their suppliers. The same control is not possible in mass education. The “raw material”–the students–come as they are, and the only way of coming close to the uniformity of their characteristics would be to sort them into defined groups and then to treat each group differently. Naturally, this is neither possible politically nor could it ever been executed within modern understandings of social justice.

If classes and other institutional methods of learner grouping are unavoidable, what do I mean when I say that the individual teacher-learner connection remains the essence of education? To my mind, I means the following:

a) The teacher must acquire and maintain some sense of his students’ characteristics as individuals. To whatever extent is possible, he must treat them as individuals and not merely as a member of a group.

b) It follows that as not all students are the same, they must not be treated as if they were identical. One student may need more direct assistance than another. One student may need more time to properly complete an assigned task. Assessment methods and categories (i.e., “grades”) must also be flexible enough to deal with student diversity.

c) “Fairness,” as it is generally understood in democratic societies (and almost obsessively by Americans), usually is taken to mean that everyone is to be treated identically and that differences are to be ignored. To be “fair” is generally understood to be “difference-blind” and to deal with everyone with machine-like uniformity. I have no quibbles with these definitions, but I avoid the use of the term altogether in favor of a value I consider superior: “justice.” Justice means everyone gets what he deserves, that he gets “what’s coming to him.”

I have seen it happen that a student struggling with a difficult subject can become discouraged by a string of poor grades. To give such a student another poor but “fair” grade might cause him to give up and abandon the study (or all his studies and just “drop out”). To give him a somewhat better grade than is “fair,” though, might help preserve in him some hope. One may ask, “but why is he struggling? Can’t he just apply himself?” The answer is, “yes, he can and he has, but it’s harder for him than for others.” Why harder? For a thousand and one reasons, none of which are the business of other members of a particular “class,” but are the business of a teacher as he dutifully helps each of his students learn.

[Here is the original article, "My Philosophy of Teaching" (opens in new window).  For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]

Philosophy of Teaching Series: Postulate #7

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Here is the elaboration of Postulate #7.

7. Oral communication, teacher-to-learner, is best reserved for guidance rather than detailed content. Other forms of communication greatly exceed the capacity of speech for substantive material.

Study after study has made clear the limitations of oral communication in imparting the merely informational. When spoken at a normal pace, the bulk of a lecture delivered before note-taking students is lost on them. Consider the absurdity of trying to listen to one complex idea while simultaneously trying to scribble down the essence of the idea that preceded it out of the mouth of the teacher. The problem is made all the more manic by teachers who feel they must “cover” the material of a given topic or chapter in the time institutionally allotted. To such lecturers, student questions are disruptions and annoyances to be discouraged by being dispatched as quickly as possible. In the mind of some, technology has come to the rescue with PowerPoint, and now the complexities and subtleties of a serious subject can be rendered as staccato bullet points. And as the bullets come flying toward their targets arrayed before them like sitting ducks, whatever charm the traditional lecture might have had completely vanishes. So many lecturers simply read off the bullet points during their so-called lectures that it’s clear the machine rules even the erstwhile autocratic teacher. Relying upon a machine, he speaks like one.

[If you comment on this posting and the AP article, relating them to your own experiences, you’ll receive 5 extra-credit points in whatever course of mine you are registered. It is your responsibility to call my attention to your comment. Click on the “Comments” link below (it might say “No Comments” if you are the first one).]

If not lecture, then what should a teacher do before his students? Questions, answers, discussion, discursive explanations and elaboration, and focused attention on the specifics of substantive materials assigned to convey detailed content (i.e., books and the like). I would be a waste of time to merely restate or “go over” what has already assigned if all that is being done is to duplicate the same materials. Explanation? Yes. Clarification? Absolutely. Repetition? Not for adult learners.

[Here is the original article, "My Philosophy of Teaching" (opens in new window).  For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]

Philosophy of Teaching Series: Postulate #6

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Here is the elaboration of Postulate #6.

6. The most fruitful role a teacher of adults can play is that of guide. An adult can teach himself, but he profits from the guidance of a scholar, practitioner, or other knower.

There is nothing short of deception or misdirection that a teacher can do to keep a self-motivated and responsible student from learning. A passive or disengaged student might not get much benefit from a slack, lazy, or merely incompetent teacher, but an engaged student will need but little help to learn the subject before him. What he needs from his teacher is direction and guidance. His teacher knows the subject and how it fits within the larger network of human knowledge. He knows what is important in it and what is trivial. He can save the engaged student a great deal of time, energy, and lost effort by pointing him in the right directions. Because the teacher’s knowledge comes from a wider universe of study and thought, he can vaccinate the autodidact against the self-learner’s worst disease: the facile self assurance that often comes from isolated study and inquiry.

[Here is the original article, "My Philosophy of Teaching" (opens in new window).  For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]

Philosophy of Teaching Series: Postulate #5

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Here is the elaboration of Postulate #5.

5. One can learn without a directly- or personally-involved teacher. One can learn from books and from other media. One can also learn from oneself. That is what experience is.

Mark Twain is famous for quipping that he never let his schooling get in the way of his education. Most of us have sensed at one time or another that the institutions with which we deal–including schools, colleges, and universities–sometimes act in counterproductive or even destructive ways. An otherwise healthy person can contract a fatal disease in a hospital, an abused parishioner can lose his faith in a church dedicated to nurturing it, and a school can protect and defend ignorance by the very nature of the way it operates. Just as health and faith do not need hospitals and churches to exist, neither does learning absolutely require schools or the teachers who are employed by them. Learning can take place when reason, informed by previous learning and experience, acts on observation of real things in the world. A person on whom nothing is lost is constantly learning, constantly enlarging his store of knowledge and understanding.

[Here is the original article, "My Philosophy of Teaching" (opens in new window).  For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]

Philosophy of Teaching Series: Postulate #4

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Here is the fourth elaboration in this series.

4. The ultimate burden of learning is on the learner, if he or she is an adult, and shared by teacher, learner, and parent if the learner is a child, but only until such time as the learner becomes a responsible adult.

There are, of course, a million and one realities that complicate the assumption of responsibility on the part of the learner. If he is young, adulthood is exciting but often problematic. For any of us, arriving at fully responsible maturity requires a journey of some decades, and we bring along with us lots of heavy baggage. In our modern-industrial-bureaucratic-technological world, all are tempted to externalize whenever we can: “it’s not my fault, it’s the system.” “I’d do a better job if . . . .” “No one told me I needed that.” And so forth. At any given moment, any reason for failure that sounds suspiciously like an excuse might be valid and unavoidable. In the long run, though, it is still up to each person–each learner–to carry the burden of his own education. He may have to set it down occasionally to rest. He may need help from his teachers or his fellows. But ultimately, it is his responsibility.

[Note: If you comment on this posting, relating it to your own experiences, you’ll receive 5 extra-credit points in whatever course of mine you are registered. It is your responsibility to call my attention to your comment. Click on the “Comments” link below (it might say “No Comments” if you are the first one).]

[Here is the original article, "My Philosophy of Teaching" (opens in new window).  For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]