Sunday, December 27, 2015

The double-edged sword we refer to as 'high expectations'

This is from Chickering and Gamson's Seven Principles.

Good practice in undergraduate education:

.....6.  Communicates high expectations.  

This appears unambiguous as stated.  Complexity, hence ambiguity, comes from considering what the verb 'communicates' actually means.  The following passage is from Peter Drucker and illustrates the issue nicely. [Drucker, Peter F. (2009-10-13). The Essential Drucker (Collins Business Essentials) (p. 262). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]  (My emphasis added.)

An old riddle posed by the mystics of many religions—the Zen Buddhists, the Sufis of Islam, and the Rabbis of the Talmud—asks, Is there a sound in the forest if a tree crashes down and no one is around to hear it?

We now know that the right answer to this is no. There are sound waves. But there is no sound unless someone perceives it. Sound is created by perception. Sound is communication. This may seem trite; after all, the mystics of old already knew this, for they too always answered that there is no sound unless someone can hear it. Yet the implications of this rather trite statement are great indeed. 
First, it means that it is the recipient who communicates. The so-called communicator, the person who emits the communication, does not communicate. He utters. Unless there is someone who hears, there is no communication. There is only noise.

We can push this metaphor a bit.  For taking Drucker's meaning literally in the last paragraph, it is hearing that is at issue.  But really, hearing is not the crux of the matter.  The issue is understanding.  What is it that the recipient understands?  How does that relate to what the communicator intends?   If there are discrepancies between the two, does it mean that the communicator did a poor job? Or might something else explain why the communicator and the recipient don't end up on the same page?

One possible explanation for persistent discord is that prior expectations are so divergent and those expectations sharply influence both the form of the message, on the one hand, and how the message is received, on the other. A different explanation is that our prior education impacts us in what counts for relevant evidence on which to base a decision.   This fascinating piece by Malcolm Gladwell, The Engineer's Lament, illustrates the issue in a profound way.  The topic of concern in the piece is traffic safety and with that to determine the proper social policy to promote traffic safety.  A horrific accident can trigger public alarm as to the accident cause, possibly ultimately generating a recall of the vehicle type that was involved in the accident.

A single sufficiently graphic episode focuses the attention for most of us.  Engineers, however, are different in this regard.  Their training has told them that instead to focus on the statistical data about accident history.  For the rest of the population these data are dry, possibly incomprehensible, and don't trigger an emotional response that creates a call to action.  In contrast, traffic safety engineers understand there are tradeoffs implicit in taking any costly action to promote public safety.  They want bang for the buck, which in this case means they want to move the statistical averages substantially with their recommendations for safety expenditure.  As it turns out, the recalls chronicled in Gladwell's piece fail in this regard.  They may satisfy the emotional need to "Do something!" after a terrible accident.  But the changes made to the vehicles that have been recalled typically don't end up doing very much, statistically speaking.

The traffic safety engineers' view is that a much bigger return on investment could be had by influencing driver behavior in the direction of safety.  Typically, this means getting people to drive slower.  Two sorts of investments are discussed in the piece.  One is cameras that measure driving speed and where those measurements are made known to drivers as they are driving.  The other is additional highway patrol officers and police cars.  Both serve as effective deterrents to speeding.  Both are simple and non-sexy solutions to the traffic safety problem.  This is where leverage is to be found.  (Leverage in this sense, equivalent to bang for the buck, is discussed in Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline.)  This sort of thinking brings to mind Atul Gawande's famous essay, On Washing Hands, which caused an observable and substantial change in how health care is provided.

With this as background I want to return to context of teaching and learning and ask: what sorts of behaviors and messages communicate high expectations?

* * * * *

I first wrote about the issue not quite ten years ago, where unlike now I taught only classes for the Campus Honors Program.  I framed the issue in a particularly graphic way in a post called Killing The Puppy.  (The link is to a capture of my blog at from near the time of the post, which produces the look of the site then.  Ironically, I found this by some typical meandering on the Web, this time on George Siemens' old blog.  Once upon a time I read the posts at that site quite regularly. Apparently, some of that reading was reciprocated.)

Puppies like getting petted.  The metaphor I had in mind was to students who care a lot about their grades.  They like being told how well they are doing and that their work merits an A (or even an A+).  The problem with praise of this sort is that real learning involves failure, lots of failure.  Or, if you prefer, real learning involves awkward early performance that typifies the novice learner.  Further, college students operate somewhere in that gray zone between being a child and being an adult.  What to say to a young child who is learning, whether to treat the kid like a puppy or not, I really don't know.  But for a near adult learning, a virtual patting the kid on the head early on is dishonest.  My title in that post from ten years ago was meant as a call to move away from the pat on the head sort of praise and replace it with something else, more frank and better situated in the actual experience.  With honors students, certainly, this is the way that the instructor communicates high expectations.  In this setting there is a decent chance that the communicator and recipient will converge and that an ongoing conversation will ensue that accompanies the student learning.

Since I've retired I've not taught honors students.  Part of that is lack of opportunity.  Another part is a judgment on my part that teaching regular students is the right thing to do.  The goal here is to learn how to produce real and substantial learning for ordinary students, something I would argue has been outside the mission of the university as it was traditionally conceived.  I made the argument a few years ago in a post entitled, The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1s.  The traditional approach offered a lottery to students, the winners of which would get the real learning opportunities.  Given the resources available, this was probably for the best.  But the lottery favored the elite students and the real go-getters among the student population.  Opportunities for learning were far more limited for more ordinary and shyer students.

My argument is that this needed to change to where outcomes, not just initial opportunities, were more democratically distributed, as a consequence of the much greater reliance on tuition as a source of revenue for the university than has been the case historically.  So while teaching my classes since retirement, the background question that has been driving me is whether producing real and substantial learning for ordinary students is possible and, if so, how instructors should go about doing this.

The first time I taught after being retired I had two classes, neither of which I currently teach.  That was spring 2011.  Since then I only teach The Economics of Organizations.  Apart from the initial offering of the class, which was in the spring, each subsequent offering has been in the fall.  This is my preference under the assumption that the seniors in the class will be less distracted than they would be in the spring.  I thought I had been making progress on addressing the background question until the most recent offering of the course, which just concluded.  This time it was a real struggle for me and I probably took at least a couple of steps backward in feeling I had some answers.  It is trying to make sense of the recent experience which motivates this post.

First and foremost is the question whether ordinary students are willing to endure the frequent failure that is necessary for real learning.  Two reasons why they may not are: (1) potential damage to the GPA in so doing and (b) potential damage to the student's ego from feeling embarrassed by being awkward in front of others - classmates and especially the teacher.

As to (1), real learning takes as long as it takes.  On the other hand, exams happen at times scheduled well in advance.  One explanation for why students memorize in advance of exams is that it seems a more reliable approach for readying oneself against the vicissitudes of the exam, while containing the readying activity to a manageable time period. In turn, such students then grow to expect the instructor to teach to the test, so when such expectations are confirmed memorizing the lecture notes ends up indeed being good preparation.  There is also that this becomes a learned behavior (in the sense of habit formation) so even in those circumstances where the instructor offers up questions on the exam that follow only indirectly from the lectures, many students will still prepare as they have in their other courses, for lack of a viable alternative.

The above is an indirect argument that grades are pernicious in encouraging real learning with ordinary students, as too many of them will opt for the self-protection described in the previous paragraph, when the grade consequences are sufficiently severe.  Alternatively, it can be taken as an argument in support of grade inflation.  If students are convinced they will do reasonably well grade-wise as long as they attain a minimal performance standard - e.g., showing up and being counted - then they have less need to self-protect via memorization and might be more willing to go through the steps it takes to produce real learning.  This gets us to (2).

If a student is not self-conscious, then it is possible the student will be oblivious to the risk of failure.  In turn, that lack of self-consciousness can lead to deep learning as the student gets fully absorbed in the subject matter.  It may be the honors students differ from regular students mostly in this lack of self-consciousness and hence in their ability to concentrate. For a student who is self-conscious and who does fear failure as a consequence, a different approach is needed if the student is to engage in real learning.  The student must be convinced that failure is no big deal.  Failure is just an ordinary part of learning, necessary early steps if you will. The way to convince students of this is to create a safe space in which students are encouraged to fail and fail often, all as part of the larger process.

In other words, this is the obverse of the argument made a couple of years ago in a piece called Inside the Box:  People don't actually like creativity.  I don't doubt the empiricism that is the basis of this piece, but I question whether what we observe is human nature in action or if, instead, it is some pathology because we have become prisoners to our own fears.  On this I keep going back to Eric Hoffer.  The following is from a passage I wrote several years ago: 

I didn't have my fill of Hoffer and looked for more of his writing. Ultimately I found Between the Devil and the Dragon. The Library has a copy, which I checked out. The Dragon, we learn immediately, is the symbol of our struggle with nature, a concept that is earlier than the Devil, which he attributes to the Hebrews. They were the first group to see man as living above nature. God made nature, but God made man in his own image. 

I regard this in a completely areligious way, simply as an affirmation that creativity is part of human nature.  Hoffer later argues that most people are not creative, which is consistent with the argument made in the Slate piece that I linked to.  It is only the weak who are creative in Hoffer's view.  They are driven to creativity to transcend their current lot in life, which is untenable.  But in Hoffer's description, whether one is weak or strong is a matter of circumstance.  The capacity for creativity is in all of us.  It is just that many of us choose not to use that capacity. My argument then is that students should get exposed to that capacity in themselves while in school. Whether that will cure the pathology of fear I don't know.  At a minimum, it should alert each student that there is a choice to be made.  To reach that level of awareness, students need a safe place to try things out and see for themselves how they perform in that safe setting.

None of the intellectual content of my course, such as 'transaction costs' or 'transfer prices', should make students uncomfortable by threatening personal identity.  Students may very well find the subtleties in these ideas difficult to master, so there are learning challenges for them, to be sure.  But economics courses are unlike courses where matters of race, religion, or sexual orientation come to bear.  The topics of my class are, in that sense, far less controversial.  Yet my call for a safe space where students can do their formative learning without concern of the consequences from failure, is eerily similar to the call some have made for safe spaces in these more emotionally challenging courses.  Consequently, I want to defend my ideas further.

The starting point is that ordinary student for the most part do not engage in real learning in most of their courses.  Among others who make this point is Ken Bain in his book What the Best College Students Do, where he argues that most students engage in surface learning only.  If we are to substantially change what is now a majority practice, we must change the environment in in a way that is conducive to the majority wanting to alter their behavior on their own.  In other words, I am making a fundamentally positive economics point.  I will readily admit that the jury is still out on whether in creating such safe spaces that is sufficient for encouraging the real learning we'd like to engender.  But there is no doubt about the agenda.  The program I'm operating under can be described as a search for such environments that will positively impact student learning, based on a model of the learner that jives with current experience.

In contrast, those who argue against such safe environments, and there are many such people so here I won't try to single out any one in particular, seem to me to take a fundamentally normative economics approach to the matter.  In other words, the ideal is for us to be producing highly resilient and adaptable students who can make the necessary adjustment to the environment, however harsh it may present itself.  While I concur with this normative goal, I think there is then a conceptual error made from a positive perspective.  The error is the belief that providing a safe environment lessens the chance that the normative goal will ever be attained.  (Implicit in this is perhaps a Darwinian argument about successful adaptation coupled with a view that for those less successful in adapting, they must suffer so the stronger members of the species thrive.)

There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that in the absence of a really safe environment, students will self-protect and that self-protection will block the resilience in students that everyone wants to see.  As I said above, there is still an unknown of whether in a safe environment if students will grow sufficiently that eventually they no longer need the protections the environment provides.  And even if this is true, there is the further matter of how long this is likely to take.  Admittedly, I don't know the answers here.  It seems to me, however, that is what we should be trying to learn.  That is the crux of my argument.

* * * * *

Now I want to add a further complication to this story and in the process take myself on in the argument I made just above.  The issue I'd like to bring in is prejudice, in this case the teacher's prejudice against his students.  In this I'm aided by a recent Opinionator column by George Yancy, Dear White America.  Yancy argues that the system is inherently racist (for which the evidence seems abundant; Yancy trusts his readers to be aware of that evidence).  White America, at least those who in the main embrace the system, must therefore be racist as well, even if from time to time they try to confront that racism.  It is an argument that I'm still scratching my head about.

In the meantime, here I want to appropriate Yancy's argument and use it for my own purposes.  Where Yancy says White America, make the substitution 'professors' and where he says Black America make the substitution 'students'.  Even though I purport in wanting to see my students engage in real learning, am I prejudiced against my students?  If that is so, how does this prejudice manifest and ultimately limit the learning of the students?

It is hard not to vent here, but I will try to avoid that as best as possible.  Instead I will ask, what is that the instructor enjoys in teaching and what is it that the instructor detests?

On this score it is much more enjoyable to teach a course for the Campus Honors Program than to teach a course aimed for regular students, the majority of whom are Economics majors.  On core issues of how motivation manifests, like coming to class, CHP students are much more inclined to do so than ordinary students.  In my Economics of Organization class I tell students at the beginning of the semester, "I don't want to be your mother."  That typically brings out a chuckle from some of them.  But by mid semester, for many I'm playing the role of their mother and urging them to get their assignments in on time.  Why that is necessary is anybody's guess.   Here I simply want to assert that it is the norm to have some students who are serious about the course work, meaning they come to class and do their assignments diligently, and many other who are apparently merely going through the motions.

Some might argue that the solution is to have strict rules and then enforce those, letting students live with the consequences.  But one of the themes of my course is that organizations which operate under strict rules typically limit productivity by not creating a sense of ownership in their employees.  Employees who follow the rules do so out of fear of losing their jobs, but then they won't have the passion for the work necessary to do an outstanding job.  If we're going to talk that talk in class, we should also walk the walk, or so has been my thinking in how the class is structured.  Yet the lack of motivation evident in too many students defeats this message from really getting through. Or, put differently, if I got to recruit students for my class from among those who wanted to register for it, a novel thought that I'm sure would put a smile on the face of other instructors were it suggested at a faculty meeting, I would reject a good fraction of those who do sign up for the class because they don't bring enough to the table.

A second issue is whether students seem open to new ideas.  As a teacher, it is much more encouraging to see a student whose own world view is flexible enough that it can be modified when confronted with a new and interesting idea, one the student hadn't previously considered.  Students who are more of a closed book, and therefore who are harder to reach, are less fun to teach.  I don't mean here students who are skeptical.  Such skepticism would actually be a welcome thing, as the students who challenged what they are being taught would then have to find intelligent arguments to support their prior beliefs.  Bringing such arguments out in the open would be a very good thing.  When I talk about students being a closed book I mean they are instinctual and not reflective in generating their own views.  (Another instructor might say that for such students their critical thinking skills are weak.)  Getting such closed minded students to be more open in their thinking presents a challenge to the instructor.

A third issue is whether students have adequate prior preparation.  Here, I don't mean whether students have had the prerequisite courses.  The issue is how much of the prerequisites the student has internalized in a way where that knowledge can be repurposed in my class.  My class is an upper level course meant for juniors and seniors.  If I must continually go back to square one to produce understanding, we can't get very far in covering the subject matter of my class.  Alternatively, in my class we end up going through the surface learning charade that I am desperately trying to avoid.

When I was a teen, the Stephen Stills song Love the One You're With was quite popular.  It might serve well as the mantra for current day college instructors.  Yet instructors are human beings and sometimes they are unable to live up to the standards they set for themselves.  When the challenges mount and the successes are few and far between, it is all too easy to become first frustrated and then eventually to become exasperated.  When those emotions overtake the instructor the tone of the message being sent is apt to change.  Students will hear the irritation in the instructor's voice or see caustic criticism in the instructor's comments that are a response to some piece of student writing. What the instructor originally meant as a gentle nudge toward better student performance gets heard by the student as rebuke.  This might completely discourage the student's earnest participation.  When this happens the safety of the space has then been shattered.

Two different stories can be told here, each describing the same outcome.  In the first, the students are not hearty enough.  They are unable to shrug off some negative feedback they receive.  They have made a mountain out of a molehill.  In this story the project to get ordinary students to learn in a deep way is doomed to failure because the students are too brittle.    In the second story, the instructor is not patient enough.  The instructor lets his demons get the better of him and dissipates his opportunities for providing useful feedback by instead venting during these times.  The instructor is Doctor Frankenstein who makes his own monster, because he is so hell bent on dramatic improvement from his students that he ignores the small real steps of progress that students make when they are learning.

Let me close with the following observation.  The results are not uniform in my class.  The shattering of the safe space (or not) happens not for the class as a whole but for each individual student, taken one at a time.   That is worth keeping in mind as we consider what progress looks like.

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