I was struck by a paragraph in a blog post I was reading today and had to post.
An unconscious residue of this earlier stage in the development of our institutions of higher education is the assumption that an instructor has only two options – to maintain high standards or to betray the honor of the discipline by “dumbing down” the material. Such a belief system has the secondary benefit of insulating instructors from the notion that they might have an obligation to actually adjust their teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that they are hoarding.
I have only recently started following the blog, and so I have not gone back and read what he has posted in the past. In fact, in full disclosure, this is the first post I have actually read from the blog. I am familiar with him largely through his work on the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL).
That paragraph, and really the whole post, really spoke to what I have been pursuing and continue to pursue in my reimagining of how I teach. I am very familiar with the example he had earlier in the post — “‘We grade on the curve,’ they said. ‘The best exams get ‘As,’ the worst get ‘Fs,’ and the rest are spread out in between. How else would we know what grade to give each student?'” I remember my grad school days where I would spread out student papers in order of quality on my apartment floor, and then I would give the papers furthest to the left in front of me the highest grades and just go down from there to the lowest on the right. In other words, I graded the papers in the relative sense with each other – the best getting the highest grade, and all down from there. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was an example I saw in my own grading, back in the pre-rubric days and back when I largely just gave that grade to the students with minimal feedback, and, if asked to justify the grade, would have had little more to say except that, in relation to others in the class, that’s where the paper fell.
This same idea was in a recent Tea for Teaching episode that I was listening to. In the episode “Writing Better Writing Assignments,” Dr. Heather Pool said, “And so, my experience as an undergrad was I got a lot of papers that had a letter grade and like the occasional ‘Good’ or ‘What?’ in the comments, and that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A and I wanted to get an A.” This was exactly what I was giving students, and it is still what I see happen a lot.
The argument (which is what I liked about Dr. Pace’s take on it) that doing anything different would be “dumbing down” the material is one I have heard many times. That, if I don’t hold my students to incredibly high standards by making sure that not many of them do well, then I am just “spoonfeeding” them the material. But in most of the cases where I have heard this, there is little effort made to help the students to do well. It is a sink-or-swim condition. The students are assumed to have the skills they need to succeed, and any inability on their part to meet the expectations of the class are taken as them just not being good enough. The responsibility is taken off of the teacher and put on the student. If they fail a multiple-choice test, they didn’t study hard enough. If they can’t write a paper, they are poor writers. If they can’t complete a project or pay attention in class, they are just lazy. They are not agents of their own, they are instead just pawns in the machine of higher education, where the best come out the other end while everyone else gets ground down.
This idea was also discussed in a book I am currently reading, An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. In their introduction, they discuss Paulo Freire’s notion from Pedagogy of the Oppressed that this type of eduction is the banking model, where it is a “one-sided transactional relationship, in which teachers are seen as content experts and students are positioned as sub-human receptacles” (4). Sub-human receptacles. Pawns. Whatever it makes them, it is certainly not what I am looking for in teaching.
So, back to what Dr. Pace said, I do not want to “insulating [myself] from the notion that [I} might have an obligation to actually adjust [my] teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that [I am] hoarding.” In fact, I want to be able to raise my students up and give them the skills to succeed. I am not “dumbing down” my content but teaching my subject and the skills necessary to understand and succeed.I have been working on this for years, and I am still working on it. I can only say it is a work in progress now, and I hope that I continue in this direction and do not turn my back on it when it does get hard or frustrating.