Thoughts on Education – 3/20/2012 – A long article

I promised that I would return to this article, and so I will here.  I had read it earlier and just revisited it now.  I was quite impressed with the thought that went into the article, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said.  I especially liked these ideas here:

  • “Instructors walk to the front of rooms, large and small, assuming that their charges have come to class “prepared,” i.e. having done the reading that’s been assigned to them — occasionally online, but usually in hard copy of some kind. Some may actually have done that reading. And some may actually do it, after a fashion, before the next paper or exam (even though, as often as not, they will attempt to get by without having done so fully or at all). But the majority? On any given day?”
  • “We want them to see the relevance of history in their own lives, even as we want them to understand and respect the pastness of the past. We want them to evaluate sources in terms of the information they reveal, the credibility they have or lack, or the questions they prompt. We want them to become independent-minded people capable of striking out on their own. In essence, we want for them what all teachers want: citizens who know how to read, write, and think.”
  • “We think it’s our job to ask students to think like historians (historians, who, for the moment, were all born and trained in the twentieth century). We don’t really consider it our job to think like students as a means of showing them why someone would want to think like a historian. We take that for granted because it’s the choicewe made. Big mistake.”
  • “For one thing, there’s too much “material” to “cover” (as if history must — can — be taught sequentially, or as if what’s covered in a lecture or a night’s reading is likely to be remembered beyond those eight magic words a student always longs to to be told: “what we need to know for the test”). For another, few teachers are trained and/or given time to develop curriculum beyond a specific departmental, school, or government mandate. The idea that educators would break with a core model of information delivery that dates back beyond the time of Horace Mann, and that the stuff of history would consist of improvisation, group work, and telling stories with sounds or pictures: we’ve entered a realm of fantasy (or, as far as some traditionalists may be concerned, a nightmare). College teachers in particular may well think of such an approach as beneath them: they’re scholars, not performers.”
  • “Already, so much of history education, from middle school through college, is a matter of going through the motions.”
  • “Can you be a student of history without reading? Yes, because it happens every day. Can you be a serious student of history, can you do history at the varsity level, without it? Probably not. But you can’t get from one to the other without recognizing, and acting, on the reality of student life as it is currently lived. That means imagining a world without books — broadly construed — as a means toward preventing their disappearance.”

OK, so if you’ve stuck with me this far, you are looking for more than just a bland repeating of what someone else said.  So, here are my own thoughts on the matter.  I think this is spot on with regard to the assumptions that we make in teaching history.  I have long since given up on the idea that my students actually do the reading that I assign, although I do my damnedest to get them to.  I put together more and more complex quizzes that the students have to complete on each chapter, with the hope that they will not be able to complete them without reading the chapters.  Actually, I won’t even say I do that, as more of the approach I make is that it will be much easier and faster for the students to complete the assignments they are required to do if they have actually done the reading.  What is funny, and really a failing on my part, is that I still run the class as if they are doing the reading, even though I know they don’t.  This is exactly the fault at which this article is aimed.

I also fall victim to the idea of coverage.  I feel that, as long as I am lecturing, then I am expected to fully cover the material for the course, telling the students everything that they are supposed to know.  I adopt that “sage on the stage” persona so easily that it is scary.  All it takes is for me to stand up in front of the class, and I can talk for 75-minutes on the subject, never asking questions, never stopping for clarifications, and just going, going, going.  I do that day after day without really trying.  Despite my best intentions, I have the standard lecture class down pat, so much so that it takes very little preparation on my part these days to be able to walk in and deliver that lecture.  I wish this wasn’t so, but I feel that I’ve actually gotten lazy with my teaching, just delivering the same old series of lectures, which are now on their 4th year since the last set of revisions.  I’m no better than that joke that we all laugh about of the old professor going in with his old hand-written notes on a legal pad that he did 20 years earlier and delivering the same lecture.  I have fallen into that trap.  Instead of innovating in the place where it matters most, I am stagnating.  I have innovated everywhere else, but day in and day out, I do the same old thing.

So, what can I do?  Well, I have already been planning it out in this blog, and the more I read things like this article, the more I am convinced that it is time for a radical change.  I don’t mean incremental change with some modifications to the lecture and so forth.  I mean radical change.  Blowing up the lecture class.  Flipping the classroom.  Whatever you want to call it.  I need to approach the students and deliver to them, not do what I and my colleagues have always done.  And when I step down from my teaching high each day, I look around at the students, and what do I see?  They are gazing off into the distance, texting on their phones, watching me, surfing the internet, taking notes, dozing, and all sorts of things.  Yet, all of those things are passive.  Sitting there.  Letting themselves either be entertained or annoyed at having to be there (as if I’m forcing them to get a college education).  I want an active classroom.  I want the students to be engaged.  I want to teach history, historical thinking, critical thinking, and so much more.  I don’t want to just lecture, deliver.  To do that, I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone.  I’m going to have to stop going in with my pre-made lecture and talk for 75 minutes.  I will have to do it all differently.  I will have to change.  It will be hard.  It will be a lot of work.  It will be uncertain.  But I hope it will also be valuable to my students and to me.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of three, student of life, owner of a parrot, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all around guy.

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