Saturday, June 10, 2006

Killing The Puppy

I first found out that I was a really good student after the initial marking period in 7th grade. Weird memories of that time creep back into my head. We had to wear ties to school. This was public school, JHS 74, on Oceania Street one block south of the Long Island Expressway. I think we had “assembly,” once a week. At this one, the principal called out my name and I had to walk to the front of the room and shake his hand. I had a 93.2 average and it turned out that was the highest of any student in the grade for that marking period. There were probably a few hundred people in room. I don’t believe I anticipated this “honor” in advance and I think I was embarrassed.

There were other reminders, some painful. Near the end of the school year we were all going around with our yearbooks, the ones that your classmates and teachers and family write in. My sister’s was the best. Written in an inward bending spiral, she wrote, “Undertake your undertakings before the undertaker takes you under.” One girl in my class, not someone I knew particularly well, wrote that I made her uncomfortable in class because I raised my hand and gave answers to the teachers’ questions. It’s funny, those are the only two that I remember at all and that yearbook is long gone now. Here are a couple more of those. For a brief period of time I had a girlfriend and a couple of days in science class I changed my seat to sit next to her. Some other girl in the class, I believe she had put me up on some intellectual pedestal because the next year she nominated me to be president of Arista, though I clearly wasn’t popular enough to get elected, was emboldened to tell me that I shouldn’t have this particular girl friend because she wasn’t good enough for me. It’s strange, but I suppose typical, that people put you into a box, even when they have good intentions for you.

Let’s fast forward a few years. I’m now in tenth grade and the wheels are beginning to fall off emotionally. It’s the first time that my grades are starting to slip. My self-esteem is definitely taking a beating. And I can’t help but notice that I had been propped up emotionally by the GPA, like a junkie on a drug high. Now that my grades are declining, am I worth less as a human being? And is my real source of motivation the ego stroking I receive when I get a score of 100 on a test? All of that started to seem quite artificial. But I didn’t have something else more real to put into its place; at least it wasn’t obvious to me what that something else should be, so I floundered for a while. It was to be still two years before I read Kafka, but I was probably more ready emotionally for it in tenth grade than I would be as a senior.

Ultimately I came to some peace with myself on these issues, but that wouldn’t happen till graduate school or later. The real value was in the doing, or the reflecting, or simply living inside my own head and then, perhaps more importantly, interacting with people, any sort of interaction on just about any topic as long as that was open and with a real back and forth. Everything else didn’t matter as much. If there were head pats along the way, fine, no problem. But when it all boils down to looking for the next curtain call, it’s really a huge distraction, and not a healthy one.

Blogging can create this problem. The author gets encouraging comments from a post and then looks to recreate the conditions that generated those comments, because the comments aren’t just communication from the readers, they are also virtual pats on the head that “validate” the writing of the initial post. All the possible paths for being connected, from Google, to Technorati, to, to Sitemeter create a large set of possible pats on the head to indulge the ego. Again, its not the pats per se where the issue lies. Is with the reaction to try to recreate that circumstance, the looking backward, the focus on being stroked.

Consider this metpahorical, but actual example. You are playing ping pong. As you get into it with your opponent, some kibbitzer asks, “What do you do with the hand that doesn’t hold the paddle while you play the point?” If you actually pay attention to that question, you’re done. You’ll lose the game and won’t be able to play ping pong again till you forget about that question, because apart from the serve nobody who plays ping pong focuses on their off hand. The focus is on the ball and the hand with the paddle. As you get interested in the other hand, and the only reason why you’re interested is because the kibbitzer posed the dumb question, you can’t concentrate on the game.

My intent with this post, however, is not to talk about blogging, nor is it to talk about my adolescence and school. With the latter, I was merely trying to establish my bona fides as someone who understands the emotional aspect of grading and GPA. What I want to talk about in this post is teaching really bright kids, especially early on in college, and getting them to make intellectual leaps in their thinking and to begin to get them to consider that is their lot in life and how they should spend their time. These are the kids for whom “general education,” which I will define perhaps in an odd way as college education where it is not overtly obvious that it is career relevant, is most critical because these kids do have the capacity to make such leaps and in the process of changing their world view develop they also make commitments to their own personal growth that endures well beyond whatever course served as the initial stimulus.

But these kids have the most puppy in them of all the students. The socialization they’ve had on the grade front is so powerful and so complete that they become victims of that. Being a good student can mean being too conservative at taking intellectual risks, and therefore ruling out before the fact a chance to grow. Of course this problem exists with less able students as well, but to borrow from my economic jargon, the opportunity cost of going the conservative route is lower for them, because the flowers are less likely to bloom even if they take the risks. So consider a course in the freshman year aimed at such bright students where the primary (but unarticulated) goal is to encourage the students to take intellectual risks so as to create leaps in their imagination, quite irrespective of the subject matter. This, in fact, is what our Campus Honors courses here are supposed to do.

But it isn’t so easy, for the following reason.To quote my colleague Jerry Uhl from the Math department here, “Learning is about failing, repeated failing.” It is uncomfortable being in a state either of complete ignorance or having the awkward feeling of partial knowledge, it is ego deflating when initial stabs produce less than satisfactory results, and to the extent that learning is viewed by students as a competitive sport, it also raises the fear that the others are progressing along so nicely and it is only this particular student who is not getting it, so he is falling behind.

Thus, to use another metaphor, you the instructor want the students to jump into this pit of blackness and then you want to help them climb back out where they can see again, but now with their views altered by the experience. And what I’m after, still not completely satisfied with what I’ve tried though I believe my students were grateful for the experience, is how the instructor should communicate with the students while they’re in the pit. If you communicate with them as a puppy while they’re in the pit, with pats on the head and nothing more, you are being dishonest. Their performance is not wonderful. The writing needs a lot of work. They quite possibly are missing some of the esential points in what they are working on.

Sure, there is a need to say, “I’m OK and you’re OK.” But beyond that, the talk must be about the work and where it is situated and about the direction they need to move in their thinking. They need to make mods in what they are doing and you need to be seen as being helpful in suggesting the mods to make. This approach to teaching is what I mean by my title, Killing The Puppy, and I really believe that too much exuberance at this time, for example exhortations of the form “Great job,” especially provided to the product of what the students have produced to date rather than to the process they’ve been using, can be quite damaging. The students themselves know they are not on terra firma and want useful suggestions, not platitudes. But that is not easy to provide unless the ego stroking has been suspended and students and instructor both are willing to be open about what is going on. The instructor communicates via the coaching an interest in the student learning. Undeserved applause for the performance early on actually communicates the opposite.

There is still another point if I can push the metaphor of the pit and climbing out a bit more. Semesters are an entirely artificial time interval to take sojourns designed to promote leaps in the imagination and if the course has two or three projects as part of the course requirements then at the culmination of each project there is a need to provide some type of summative evaluation, i.e., to give it a grade, because the academic culture demands it. And then there is a the real possibility at project’s end that the students are still in the process of getting their vision back into focus. They don’t yet have a mature view based on what was learned in the process of doing the project. So here, especially, the problem crops up about what should be communicated, satisfy the puppy instinct in the students or be more square and overtly less satisfied with them, because now part of what is communicated has a grade involved.

Summative assessment for an early project can be viewed as formative for what comes next. So my sense is that the tone should not change much and if the projects seem squished in that they’d benefit from another week of hard work, that needs to be articulated. For the ultimate project, and by this time all of us want the semester to end even if we’ve enjoyed the course, just because we want to do something different, it may matter less. But why start with pats on the head then? If the students are to have a lingering memory of the course, is that pat helpful?

I have no idea how much teaching happens in this style but grade inflation is a well known concern that indicates the contrary and from a Writing Across the Curriculum seminar I took a while back, I know that much in evaluating student work occurs as instructors rationalize the letter grade they assign. So I’m not sanguine about this and, if that is correct, it is a shame.


Glen said...

I teach in the field of adult vocational and technical education, preparing people for occupational roles.
I know that the workplace won't be necessarily be providing pats on the back for learning and, in fact, some in the workplace will interpret success or desire to learn as a threat.
It is important to get learners to develop an internal reward system for learning and wean them off the addiction to unconditional positive regard. I don't think you have to be mean about it but there shouldn't be false expectations created.
Unfortunately, there is a tendency towards rewarding faculty on the basis of student satisfaction which tends to favor the teachers who make you feel good over the teachers that facilitate learning.

Lanny Arvan said...

Glen - I agree with your about the internal reward system. But where does that come from?