Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why Teaching Doesn't Work

"I am beginning to think, O Govinda, that there is no such thing as learning...No one is granted deliverance through a teaching!"

-Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse

Schooling has been heading in the wrong direction for a long time. It's ill-conceived to begin with, but in an effort to fix things, they've become more mixed up. The chance to spend a few hours a day pursuing an education should be enriching and it should spark curiosity, not kill it. The measure of our students, through grading and testing, is, essentially, this: how much has the student lost of herself and become what we expect them to be? Nothing is more important to a student--in our current system--than that they evolve on an arbitrary schedule to reflect an arbitrary set of skills and knowledge.

I am a writing professor. It is, I assure you, the greatest job in the world. I get to work with students on their words and, through them, I learn a bit about their lives and experiences; I gain insight into my own writing and into my own life. Most of my students work hard improve their writing throughout the semester and improve their own critical thinking skills--one of our primary goals in the course. This makes me happy because it is rewarding.

One thing I never do, unless I absolutely have to in order for them to pass the class, is instruct them. I do not tell them what to write, I do not tell them how to write it, and I do not tell them how or what to think. I am here to help them, I am here to show my experiences and let them air their own, and I am here to focus their work on improvement. But I don't tell them how--I do not "teach" them.

Throughout school, students are exposed to many subjects. There are certain skill sets and core knowledge bases that students are expected to accomplish in order to consider themselves educated. And, ultimately, we measure their performance, stratify their accomplishments, and grant them the one thing that no one can be granted except themselves: an education.

If I bake a cake from a box, I do not become a better baker. But if I am exposed to ingredients, learn about textures and temperatures and flavors, then I can begin to construct a cake that goes much deeper. Maybe some of my early cakes will suck--but that shouldn't effect my grade as a baker, it should be expected.  It shouldn't be measured. In the end, when I can bake a cake that is original and wonderful, then grade me. And I will be that much closer to being a baker.

So why should I teach my students to write cake box essays?

I can show students the outline of an essay. I can give them the plug-and-play version. Here is your thesis, here are where your points go, now support those points, and then bring us back to the top. This may produce better writing (be it boring), but it does not produce better writers.

You cannot instruct students to learn. You cannot force it. Hell, you cannot even accurately measure it beyond certain subjective criteria that we try to make as objective as possible. Learning, true learning, comes from self-motivated students who are interested in what they are learning and make it part of their own experience.

No one taught me how to write. Critique me how you will, I am a writer and that cannot be taken away from me. It cannot be taken away from me because no one gave it to me. When my teachers taught how to make an outline, I ignored it. When my teachers showed me where to put the parts of a sentence, I spaced-out. When my teachers told me how to engage an audience, I nodded my head. I wrote and got whatever grade the teacher would give me. But my satisfaction was within myself, not within that single, lonely letter.

If I did get an A, which was reasonably often, I felt like a fraud; I had fooled the teacher, I thought, into thinking I had done this "correctly," when, in fact, I didn't. I didn't outline. I didn't draft a thesis first. I didn't even plan. It took me a long time to realize that what I was doing was legit because I was a writer. Writing doesn't have a right and wrong way. It has many.

There were teachers who helped me make some things better. There were teachers who inspired me. There were teachers who exposed me to wonderful books and fascinated tales from history. But I was impervious to instruction.

This is the way of students and learning: they must find it within themselves. Otherwise, they will adopt a skill or set of knowledge only to dump it later. Neuroscience teaches us that 90% of what a student "learns" in class is lost within six months. 90%. Experiences are never lost.

The fact is dead. Students today carry around a bank of facts in the palm of their hands.They carry the depth and width of human knowledge in a computer bank more extensive than a single human's consciousness can be at their age. Do not teach them facts to regurgitate on exams. It is useless. Teach them, instead, how to manage and deploy that knowledge; how to apply it. We can only do that by providing educational experiences and dropping the fallacy of grading and measuring. We are heading in the wrong direction.

There must be a paradigm shift. We must move schools and colleges out of the dark ages of the instructional paradigm and toward the light of the learning paradigm.  We need to wake students up to themselves and stop alienating them and placing a value on them. Let their curiosity provide rabbit holes to jump through and let them see the magic of what granting yourself an education can be.


Chris ( said...

I am enjoying reading your blogs. As a father of three kids with a wonderful wife who home schools them, much of what you say is very familiar to me. Everywhere I look, it seems like over-medicated, cookie-cutter children run amuck. They find their identity from other run-amuck children and from internet, TV or games instead of their parents. This is usually because their parents are products of the same environment and have no understanding of anything different. Regardless, I just wanted to encourage you to continue on being the father your children need and keep on encouraging others to do the same. Thanks. -Chris (Palacios, TX)

Anonymous said...

Hey, where have you gone? I have been reading your blog, from South Africa, for years

Sol Smith said...

I'm still here. I need to write more, for sure! I've been dealing with some complications in life and my new book! I should post more soon!