Thursday, October 6, 2016

“Empowerment or Abandonment”

Dean Dad has some insightful things to say about the ways different students react to different teaching approaches.

At the time, I felt confident in my overall philosophy, even if not necessarily in every single moment.  My job, as I saw it, was to create students who didn’t need professors.  At some level, I still believe that.  After all, when they graduate, they won’t have professors or t.a.’s around to decode things for them. 

From a distance, though, and in a very different institutional setting, I see a different possible interpretation of what I was doing.  Students with some cultural capital, and some academic confidence, could respond to that sort of teaching as a challenge, and some did.  Students without much cultural or academic capital could read it as indifference, and respond in kind.  That wasn’t what I intended, but intentions only get you so far.  If you’re a student with a relatively fragile sense of belonging in college in the first place, someone refusing to help you could look like a sign of hostility, or as confirmation that you don’t belong. 

The teaching style with which I started was the one I had seen quite a bit as a student.  I cobbled together a general theory behind it and went with it.  And at the flagship research university where I was in grad school, it worked tolerably well.  The students generally were well-enough prepared in traditional ways that they could work with it.  They didn’t always like it, but they could work with it.

Upon moving to a very different setting, it took a while to make the adjustment. 

I was reminded of that recently in visiting a class of entering students and hearing them describe their own frustration at some institutional practices designed to empower them.  What was supposed to convey empowerment instead made them feel abandoned. 

The challenge in designing systems for students is in accurately picturing different students encountering it for the first time.  Does being told “it’s on the website” come as a relief -- “I don’t have to wait for you!” -- or as evasion (“why won’t you help me?”)?  Given the diversity of the student body at most community colleges, the answer is “yes.” 

The long-term answer (!), I think, is in conceiving of all of our processes as part of the learning experience.  Even if the eventual goal is to foster empowered, self-directed learners, some need more initial guidance than others to get there.  And that’s okay; people start in different places.  I can just imagine if I hired a personal trainer who started with “okay, let’s warm up with a five mile run.”  Um, no.  Not gonna happen.  Maybe someday, but not right out of the gate.  Replace “five mile run” with “five page paper” or “FAFSA workshop,” and the same principle holds.  If you don’t start within shouting distance of where people are, you’ll lose them.

Why AP?

I always got the feeling that others saw something in the advanced placement program that I didn't. It was never entirely clear to me why people who so often complained that our schools were doing a poor job teaching secondary-level courses were so damned happy about the same schools trying to teach college-level.

I did understand the argument for key prerequisite courses like calculus or statistics. Getting those out of the way in high school could be very helpful when trying to complete, say, an engineering degree in four years. Putting aside those exceptions, though, there didn't seem to be much point. We already had a program set up for self-study and testing out of courses. CLEP-based approaches are flexible, self-paced and cheap. They reward initiative and independence. They provide an excellent ready-made foundation when you're experimenting with new methods (If the people behind MOOCs were serious…). AP courses are, by comparison, expensive, tradition bound, cumbersome, difficult to schedule, and best serve students who are already well served by the conventional high school classroom approach.

From the moment they were introduced, AP courses tended to force out more varied and interesting elective courses for a standard slate of General Ed classes. In terms of quality of instruction, it was a Peter Principle anecdote waiting to happen. At best, you had teachers who were good at algebra and geometry being pushed out of their depth. At worst, you had faculty members who were good at sucking up to the administration being rewarded with plum positions.

Worse still was the inequality question. The schools that already had an unfair advantage in terms of financing and demographics were the very ones that could attract the highly qualified teachers with advanced degrees.

AP classes also play to one of the worst trends in education, the bury-the-kids-in-work approach which brings us to this recent essay from the Washington Post.

From Why I regret letting my teen sign up for an AP course by Kate Haas

My misgivings started when the homework began to pile up. I knew my son would have a lot of material to cover — the syllabus had been explicit about the required reading. But most of his homework seemed to consist of filling in charts. Night after night, I watched him spend hours scanning the pages of his textbook for relevant facts about ancient civilizations. He was not reading to learn but simply to plug correct bits of information into appropriate boxes.

“But you talk about this stuff in class, right?” I asked him. “You discuss the Code of Hammurabi, and all that?”

No, he told me, they did not. They took notes from the teacher’s slideshow presentations.

This did not remind me of college.

I graduated from an academically rigorous liberal arts school. In my freshman humanities class, I read a book a week: philosophy, literature, biographies, social science. But my classmates and I did not spend our time charting the number of syllables in Emily Dickinson’s poems or listing all the noble houses in Ssu-ma Chien’s chronicle of Chinese history. We were asked to think critically, raise questions, cite relevant passages and discuss a work’s implications in the wider world.

Nothing like that appeared to be taking place in my son’s AP history class. But I kept my mouth shut.

“I would enjoy learning about this,” he told me one night, “if the whole point wasn’t to go through it as fast as possible and then take a kajillion quizzes.”

“I’m sure that’s not the whole point,” I said.

At back-to-school night, I looked forward to meeting the teacher, who would undoubtedly put all this in perspective. Instead, she talked for 15 minutes about tests and grading policies.

At the end, my husband raised his hand. “What’s the main thing you want students to get from this class?” he asked.

I leaned forward expectantly. Now, surely, the teacher would mention an appreciation for the sweep of human history or the importance of an informed perspective on world events.

“Test-taking strategies and study skills,” she said briskly. “That’s the main thing.”

[This post originally ran on the sister blog West Coast Stat Views.]