Sunday, October 19, 2014

Questioning Our Own Competence

Miyagi: Hai - can see. No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.
The Karate Kid (1984)

With all the press about the CDC and the poor handling of Ebola containment, it occurred to me to refocus this attention on ourselves and ask about our own competence, especially in tough situations which we may find ourselves in from time to time.  I thought that Joe Nocera's column from yesterday was instructive.  He writes: 

Are there extenuating circumstances? To hear infectious disease specialists tell it, the answer is yes. Like all federal agencies, the C.D.C. saw significant cuts to its funding thanks to sequestration. Another expert, Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard School of Public Health, told me in an email that because the chances of Ebola being imported to the U.S. were considered low, preparing for it was not considered a good use of scarce public money. “The budget cuts,” he wrote, “have directly reduced preparedness.”

In addition, the C.D.C., like many federal agencies, had its mission transformed after 9/11. Julie Gerberding, an appointee of the Bush administration, changed its emphasis to bioterrorism and other potential security threats. “She also brought in efficiency experts who were anathema to scientists,” says Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the seminal 1994 book, “The Coming Plague.” Morale plummeted, and many of its best scientists fled.

You might think this sufficient to get the CDC off the hook.  Yet he concludes:

And now comes the C.D.C. — the most trusted agency in government — thrust in a role for which it was designed: advising us and protecting us from a potential contagion. With every new mistake, it becomes, in the public eye, just another federal agency that can’t get it right.

Nocera is a straight shooter.  You might not always agree with his point of view, but you should concur that he doesn't try to be manipulative nor does try to win talking points just for the sake of the argument.  He calls them as he sees them.  Given that, the conclusion to be drawn from his piece is that in the public eye the mitigating circumstances don't matter.  They're excuses, nothing more.  What matters is the mission.  Competence means delivering on the mission, doing that well.  Everything else is just blather.

I want to use the above as backdrop and turn our attention to teaching, my own teaching especially.  With that let me take as starting point the U of I Strategic Plan, where it says:  

Goal II:  Provide Transformative Learning Experiences

So I asked myself, what evidence do I have from the student performance in my class that some of them are being transformed by my teaching approach?  The answer, disappointingly, is that I have no evidence of this whatsoever.  I'm 0-fer. There is much in my method that I consider innovative.  But the method doesn't seem to be taking with the students.  It's like giving a cactus too much water.  

Personal transformation is no small matter and we should not expect large changes in somebody in a brief period of time.  In reflecting from the teacher's perspective on witnessing the students learning, Ringo's Starr's lyrics are instructive.

Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues,
And you know it don't come easy.

I believe I understand this.   And in this blog I've written about the mitigating circumstances, ad nauseam.  Others have written about mitigating circumstances as well.  But I tend to view my own teaching with a public eye.  It makes me impatient to see real results.  When I don't, I'm prone to get angry.

I'm angry at the kids who choose not to come to class, especially given that the total enrollment is only in the mid 20s.  I'm angry at the kid who comes, most of the time, but seems too laid back to care about what is going on.  I'm angry at the over achieving student whose approach blocks all real learning by not taking any personal risks whatsoever.  I'm angry at the mediocre performance of the class on my first midterm, and the incompetence the students demonstrated with that performance.  And most of all, I'm angry at the mercenary tendencies of many of the students, who have sold their souls to the devil, so they can get a job in the finance/banking sector and become part of the 1 percent. 

It is my anger that marks my incompetence.  

I wish I could put the genie back in the bottle and have my idealism about student learning return, for with anger comes lack of hope.  This semester, for the first time since I returned to teaching after retirement, I've asked myself whether I should give up on the teaching.  If what I do doesn't matter for the learning, then why do it?  For the paycheck?

Before I got involved with learning technology, 20 - 25 years ago,  I would regularly teach an intermediate microeconomics class of about 60 students.  About 5 students in the class would "get it".  Another 5 would blow off the class entirely.  The middle 50 would struggle, not like the course much at all, and see little take away from their efforts.  At the time, I thought my teaching poor because of such a low batting average.  Now I would take that batting average in a heartbeat.  Getting through to some students would make it all worthwhile.  

There are no bad students, only bad teachers.  I'm one of them.  The problem is that there aren't enough good teachers to go around.  Incompetence has become the norm, not the exception.

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