Thursday, September 14, 2006

Freefall or free-for-all? Do teachers have the right to not be pedantic?

In a recent blog Barbara Ganley says:

"I suppose I am writing this post in part to reassure myself that walking into a writing workshop with only the broadest strokes of a syllabus and only the backbone of a motherblog on Tuesday makes sense pedagogically rather than being a sign of me getting lazy after all these years. It's quite harrowing when I really think about what I am about to do --construct the syllabus with the students as we go and remove grades as much as possible --because it runs counter to what everyone around me does. I am about to pitch the teacher's safety net--a tight syllabus--out the window. I am about to pitch fifteen students into freefall, into discovering with me what it is they need to learn and not what I, without having met them, think they need to know about writing for the college classroom."

These ideas are not exactly new. I recall them doing the rounds when I started teaching in the 70's. I'll even confess to having a go at putting them into practice, with a group of adults. I didn't think they worked then, and I don't think they work now.

As I see it, the model is fundamentally flawed for the following reasons:

1. Many subjects have a particular body of knowledge associated with them, and what we may call key concepts. In Economics, for example, most economists would regard the concepts of opportunity cost and the margin as fundamental elements in the framework of economic theory. Interestingly enough, even though Chris Anderson regards the so-called long tail as a manifestation of the economics of plenty as opposed to scarcity, he acknowledges that scarcity, and hence by implication opportunity cost, is still present.

Even in a subject like how to write, Ganley's area, we have the interesting spectacle of Ganley talking about going into freefall at the same time that Stephen Downes boils everything down to a side of A4.

OK, I am being slightly facetious, and would say that in some respects his article is quite useful (I had intended to write a similar article myself, entitled "How I write", but had more pressing things to do at the time.) However, I do find the contrast between these two blog posts quite fascinating, and in the present context it would appear that Downes believes that there are certain things that you need to know about how to write in order to be able to write. If that is the case, what is the point of students wasting an entire semester or year discovering them?

This, to me, is a crucial point. If you know, say, that in order to become a great writer, or even a good one, you must know a, b and c, then surely it's your duty to tell the students exactly that in their very first lesson. That would enable them to spend the rest of the course applying those techniques and discovering what kind of writing they're good at. Discovery learning is not the same as constructivist learning. It's a waste of time.

2. People don't know what they don't know. How are students expected to make any useful decisions about what to learn, except by accident? A good teacher, using a well-constructed syllabus, will ensure that there is plenty of opportunity for students to bring their own life experiences to the table, and to discover and nurture their special interests. But that has to be within a framework which it is the duty of the teacher, as the expert, to disseminate.

I suspect that that is part of the problem. Perhaps not specifically in Ganley's case, but as a general observation it seems that the notion of the teacher as expert is frowned upon. It is undemocratic. It does not allow for student self-expression. The guide on the side is preferred to the sage on the stage.

Imagine if that approach was applied to military training, or driving lessons.

So, where would Ganley draw the line? I had a parent once who insisted that I should be teaching his child, along with all the other students, how to construct and take apart and then reconstruct a computer. The fact that these skills were not on the syllabus and would have no bearing at all on almost anything in the future had not occurred to him. In an adult economics class, a student insisted that the root cause of every problem was the balance of payments. As far as he was concerned, I should have been teaching the balance of payments alone throughout the entire course.

I took the view that I had a duty to teach them the key concepts so that by the end of the course they would be economically literate enough to be able to interpret the statistics and half-baked explanations that politicians delight in throwing about. I did, however, ask them if they would like to spend the course exploring what they thought were the important issues. They were unanimously against it.

And that brings me on to another point. Ganley says she doesn't know these students. So presumably she hasn't asked them what they think of this type of course. I have to say, if I turned up to a course to be told that there is only a broadbrush syllabus in place and few grades I'd ask for my money back. The only analagous situation I can think of is my experience as a teacher in the 1980s in England. There was a fashion for people running teacher professional development training to always answer a question with a question.

So you would ask the trainer, who was the acknowledged expert, "What would you do in such-and-such a situation?", and back would come the reply: "What would you do?", or "That's a great question. What does everyone else think?".

My view then, and now, is that here was a person who was being paid to waste my time. If he knew the answer, why didn't he just tell me? And if I wanted to hear what everyone else thought, I'd have asked them in the coffee break. If you've only got one day in which to get to grips with a new initiative or a new approach, you don't want to spend half of it "discovering" your own solution which may or may not be a workable one.

And getting back to this writing course, why are grades removed? Is there any kind of assessment? And will the course be recognised by anyone else, like potential employers perhaps?

Having read Ganley's blog posts for a while, I know she is an incredibly thoughtful and conscientious educator. I am quite sure that her reasons for embarking on the course she describes are well-founded. I would probably also go so far as to say that, given her expertise, I shouldn't be surprised if the course is a complete success. But if other, less experienced, teachers, pick up on this kind of idea, I fear that the blogosphere will, in a few years' time, be littered with the incoherent scribblings of people who think they can write -- but who never discovered that they can't, or who were simply not taught the basics.

No comments: