|The following essay appeared originally in two parts in the SENCER E - Newsletters of May and June 2005 and is available as a pdf file from the SENCER website. SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) is "a comprehensive national dissemination project funded by the National Science Foundation. It engages student interest in the sciences and mathematics by supporting the development of undergraduate courses and academic programs that teach "to" basic science and mathematics "through" complex, capacious, and unsolved public issues." The essay is made available on Serendip with permission of the author for its relevance to the Science as Story Telling in Action project.|
The students not only seemed more engaged with the material, they had been more able to do well with what he regarded as the hardest parts of the course - parts his students had really stumbled on in the past. The classroom had been lively; even the group work had gone well. Beyond that, the grades had also improved over similar prior cohorts. (Another thing about this professor, he's comfortable with lots of his students doing very well. He says he's got some pretty terrific students, some of the best he's ever had. He thinks the current obsession with grade inflation is poorly theorized and weakly analyzed, and that the typical policy solutions being proposed to deal with the "crisis" are stuffed with unintended consequences, many quite deleterious to important desirable outcomes, like a student's inclination/capacity to collaborate, to name just one. But that's another story, or perhaps another essay!)
Part of the problem with the evaluations, he suspected, had to do with his institution's evaluation/assessment form itself. It asked questions about how "prepared" the instructor was, how "organized" the material presented had been, questions like that. He had consciously transferred some of the responsibility for preparation and organization to the students. So it was no wonder to him that he might not have seemed especially prepared or organized. Even so, blaming the instrument seemed to explain only part of the problem (and it also had a whiff of the "last resort of scoundrels" about it).
While having good instruments is a very important consideration within the challenge of developing assessments that are sensitive and specific to the kinds of outcomes we desire, our colleague recognized the limitations and inadequacies of attributing poor results to poor instrumentation alone. What else was going on here?
And why was he alarmed? He knew how little consequence these evaluations would have for him personally (though he did feel compelled to account for them when his department nominated him for a distinguished teaching award!). He was alarmed, however, when he speculated about what a similar set of mediocre evaluations might portend for a new faculty member - one who lacked the protections of tenure and seniority - who tried to bring new pedagogies to a classroom. Not that he thought his "research university" really cared that much about teaching, say, as it does about "scholarly production." He knew, though, that one never really knows what "excuse" might get advanced to account for a negative decision in the ever tighter competition for tenure and promotion.
Beyond that, he knew that he and nobody else really likes a negative evaluation and the best way to avoid one might be to go back to the teaching approach that didn't expose one so readily to the unpleasant possibility of being seen as not doing well.
He hadn't thought of doing the SENCER course as a risk; indeed, he looked forward to it as something that would not only be good for the students, but good for him, as well. He suspected that doing a SENCER course would be hard work. It would require him to learn new things, to venture into areas not safely within his expertise, to experiment with the new and non - linear "flows" of the course material, and to leave some things out so he could get other things in. It made him think about the assignments and tests he would have to design differently. For example, he became interested in knowing not whether the students could get the right answers, but what the students could say about why the wrong answers were wrong. Indeed, he thought he'd really accomplished something when students stopped questioning the answers, but started to ask, in very intelligent ways, whether the questions, themselves, were the right questions to be asking. (I refer here not just to the exam questions, but to the basic questions asked within the discipline. That seemed to him to signal genuine higher - order levels of understanding.)
Though much about his course would be changed, he is quick to say that this was a "revision" of his traditional approach - retaining the vast majority of what he had always done. He wouldn't have described his work as revolutionary or even extremely reformist. He didn't really think he had upset in a significant way established traditions and expectations.
Our colleague was surprised and alarmed because he figured that maybe he had somehow let his students down. So what went wrong?
I want to suggest several answers to this question and spend some time thinking about what we might do to overcome what I think is a very tough problem.
Let's say it right off: the people who gave the negative evaluations of the new pedagogies were among the professor's "best" students. That's why I chose the title: "With friends like these..." for this little essay.
Is this irony? Not really. It's an old story. The "best" students are the students who do best within the established rules and procedures. When we learn to do well doing things in a very particular way and our capacity to demonstrate that we are doing well rests on our being able to do things in our particular way, then we're the first to say, "don't change the game on me now." This is true for us even when we could learn to succeed in a new game with relative ease.
The "old" game, in this case, is how science and lots of other things have been taught and even more pointedly, how progress and success in learning science have been measured, at the classroom level and in some of what passes as summative assessment of learning. I'm not talking only about how what has been measured is measured (methodology), but the substance (items) of what is measured, as well. (The claims from authorities at MIT that the new SAT writing exam correlates high scoring with high word count and completely ignores the process of revision, which any writer knows is the key element in good writing, is just the latest curiosity in this genre. Good writing = lots of words.)
Hanging around discussions of learning one can certainly become acquainted with Perry's and many other people's taxonomies and hierarchies. Down at the level of a pop quiz, a mid - term, a final, or perhaps most egregiously an AP exam, however, what we've often got are tests of memory and/or tests of "testing skills." And to support achievement on those tests, there's an endless supply of flashcards, review books, mnemonic anagrams, tutors, "cookbook labs," and a host of other inventions, a few with good commercial prospects! There are, of course, other non - legitimate support services that facilitate achievement, like the notorious fraternity/sorority "files", and what has now been described as epidemic or endemic violations of academic integrity. In English: lots of us are cheating.
All this is quite systematized. Succeeding within the system - legitimately, it seems - is something that can be taught and something that can be learned. Just ask the Kaplan or Princeton Review people who are willing to "guarantee" the truth of what I just asserted.
So when you've mastered one system, why wouldn't you be among the first to want to maintain the very system that validates your mastery? (Perhaps mastery is too grand a notion here. Let's say that this "system" works not only just for those who can master it, but also for those who can achieve within it at a level they deem acceptable - what one might call an efficiency consideration: "It works for me.")
And what do we do to replicate this Bourdieuian habitus? We perpetuate the system in ways that make the work of those supporting it succeed as well. Sometimes we do this in the name of "content." As a colleague at a recent meeting said, "there are just some facts" - by the way, he was referring to calculus - "that students just need to know." Fact, in that case, was perhaps an unfortunate word choice, but his message could not have been clearer. There are things ("content") you just need to know. Of course, he was right. But it also happens that one's "knowledge" of these things is pretty easily assessed. Whether you can subsequently deploy in an intellectual and practical way what you now are said to "know" is another matter altogether.
But you can learn how to learn these things called "facts," and you can learn to test well, even if your learning is anything but "digested," to recall Francis Bacon's great distinction.
What would "digested learning" be? Jay Labov tells the story of a student who complained that she hadn't been asked on an exam to recount the elements of the Kreb's Cycle, something she was proud to say she'd studied and "learned" (in high school no less, which makes her complaint about what wasn't re - taught and re - learned in college seem especially peculiar to me). When Jay asked her to explain why she was so agitated to the point of being breathless ("Why are you breathing so hard?"), she was at a loss for an answer. The chance Jay gave her to prove what she could have known in a digested way only resulted in her embarrassment and Jay's having to ask himself if she was as good a student as he had previously thought she had been.
Another way we support and replicate this condition is by accepting the AP results, and in the worst cases, permitting students to "test out" of science and math courses altogether. This "opting out" makes very good sense to someone who is trying to opt into courses that hold his/her real interest or who is genuinely ready to opt into the truly rich and advanced course offerings of a college. But the opting out altogether option makes a mockery of general or liberal education by effectively interfering with the goal of increasing knowledge transfer - applying what ones knows from one setting to a new one. Just as one should expect resistance from "succeeders" to the new and unfamiliar pedagogies, one should expect it if you try to take away the advantages that students perceive come (1) from having AP courses on his/her transcript and in the computed GPA, and (2) from being able to place out of a situation that exposes the student to the risk of receiving a sub - optimal grade. This is something the student can genuinely be said to have a stake in: having the best transcript s/he can possibly have.
So we should expect and plan for resistance when we change the rules of the game or the game itself on those who've learned well how to succeed within the current conditions. Not just that, we should expect more engagement with the question of games and rules by those who perceive that they have a genuine stake in the activity than those who are basically indifferent to it - at least to a point. With friends like these... And doesn't the same thing apply to faculty and whole institutions, as well? Why would you change the system that permits - even guarantees - you the success you currently enjoy? Shouldn't you mobilize to keep things just as they are?
I used to do a lot of work on campus in connection with the epidemic of alcohol abuse. It occurred to me that the reason some students were very engaged (passionately, it seemed to me) with the topic of changing campus alcohol policies was that they had something at stake in connection with the changes we were proposing. During this time it dawned on me that I had never engaged for a minute in a discussion of the rules applying to tennis. I couldn't have cared less about them, having never picked up a racket and set sneaker onto a tennis court. Paying attention to rule changes is something people with a stake in the game have to do. This observation, I hasten to say, fits a certain swath of those with a stake - I'd provisionally say it's the cohort just below the truly virtuoso performers, whose abilities to succeed no matter what the rules are seems vouchsafed to them. (By the way, this applies also for virtuoso drinkers - who are so invested in and accomplished at alcohol consumption that they can pretty much "succeed" regardless of the rules, the proverbial drunk who can find a drink on a Sunday in the desert.)
Extremely gifted scholars enjoy privileges that literally put them above some kinds of rules; we make room for them. It's the "invested non - virtuosi," to coin an awkward phase, I want to highlight, here. These are the students who have a stake in the game, but who don't see themselves as staying in any particular game very long. The "invested non - virtuosi" include some STEM majors - who have as little intention to be "scientists" after graduation as their socalled non - science majors counterparts do. For the large numbers of science majors who intend careers in medicine, for example, succeeding in science courses is instrumental in the quest for medical school admission and not to secure a future self - identification as "a scientist."
What about this swath of folk needs to be attended to? Let me suggest it has something to do with what kind of stake they really have. Let's provisionally call this a "cultural" or "instrumental" stake. Let me suggest some questions that we should consider as we move from one way of organizing learning to newer and better ways.
First, should we mind being "used?" It is difficult for some of us to accept, but what interests us as an "end" may be of interest to others as a means to an end. My goal might be to understand why something is the way it is. For someone else, the goal may not be understanding as much as "efficiency." Efficiency might be defined here as getting from point "a" to point "b" swiftly and successfully.
How does one overcome resistance to a course or a pedagogy that can be seen as less efficient? If possible, the best way would be to demonstrate how genuinely efficient it really is. To do that, we'll need a larger context in which efficiency can be applied to an individual's situation. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott would argue that the burden to demonstrate the "greater" efficiency (or value) of a new approach falls on those of us who advocate that new way. That burden is to show how our approach achieves an even greater efficiency than the simple, short - term efficiency of successful course completion. We have to be able to connect, imaginatively and respectfully, what we think is beneficial with a student's sense of his/her genuine interest.
To make this connection, we'll need to know how what we hope to teach can be a means to an end for our students' desires and goals. That will require something like a conversation with the student. And where the student lacks the imagination or inclination to "envision" these connections, our challenge is to stimulate and educate - "to lead out of" that condition.
What's reassuring, in a way, is just how hopeful this situation tends to be on close inspection. The interests one has are only rarely deeply buried to the point of being irretrievable. More often than not, however, the reverse is true. There's an interest never - inquired - about, or just beneath the surface, that will surface if given the chance and some encouragement. This was certainly true when we did the original HIV course at Rutgers. And Karen Oates recalls that it was cancer that got her students interested in cell biology and stimulated them to do very hard work to learn and understand it more than an interest in cell biology, itself, could have. One needs to ask.
Second, do students really need what our courses have to offer? Let's accept this question as a challenge, the challenge of assessing and demonstrating "need." Do I think I need what I am being asked to learn for anything beyond putting a requirement behind me?
At the PKAL - sponsored discussion at Kennesaw State a few of weeks ago, I recalled a painful memory of a gifted pre - med student, a senior, who had been found cheating on a psychology final exam. The student was ultimately expelled from college for doing so. (She'd saved the "social science" requirement until last year, so her expulsion came just as she was about to go on to medical school.) There was no reason to believe that she had cheated in organic chemistry, where she had earned an "A", or in the other "hard sciences" and laboratories where she had done well, also. Her science professors were stunned when they heard she'd been accused of cheating. After the disciplinary hearing, which I attended because my office was responsible for university discipline, had ended and her expulsion had been pronounced, I approached her. I asked her, holding back my own tears at what seemed to me to be a modern iteration of the Billy Budd story, "what made you do it?" She thought a minute, looked at her dad who had accompanied her there, and replied: "I never thought I would need psychology."
Her cheating was egregious, of course, but I left that hearing with the awful sense that we had failed her profoundly, just as she had let us down. How could we have been prepared to graduate someone who wanted to be a doctor but who believed that what she could have learned in psychology was something she would never need?
In response to the need question, it seems to me the challenge is to develop a narrative - a story, if you will - that will be the context that helps demonstrate the need for knowing all that we hope someone will learn. And every course, course assignments, and every one of us can help supply that context. How could we have told a good story about medicine or being a physician that didn't include "mind" and "affect" and "culture" and "ethics" as much as it included the molecular structures, the periodic table, the carbon cycle, Koch, and general physiology? And when we do tell the whole story - give the complex, capacious context - are we not helping to answer the "why do I need this?" question in a way that is itself an education? And isn't that a question we need to ask ourselves as much as we ask it of others?
Third, aren't we all just a bit stingy with our time and attention (and shouldn't we be)? Let's acknowledge the role of parsimony in all this. Being frugal with resources is virtuous; some would say "natural." Students surely are parsimonious. They have to be, there are a lot of claims on their time and resources. That can lead them, as it can lead most of us, to adopt a strategy of "triage" (another way of saying, time and effort management, or, if you prefer, damage control).
In the case of the senior pre - medical student I just described, her desire to excel in things she deemed critical - where she put her study time and energy - led her to triage: she sacrificed psychology to save something she thought truly mattered, success in her other courses. In so doing, she wound up sacrificing herself. But if she hadn't cheated - if she'd just "settled" for a "pass" in psychology - she would have been engaged in a "legitimate", often institutionally facilitated act of triage. The triage would have helped her be parsimonious; it wouldn't have helped her learn psychology, however.
If you accept my relatively value - neutral take on this (as opposed to saying people are lazy, for example), then the challenge for us is to find a way to support the parsimony without endorsing "cutting corners" and stimulating a damaging form of triage.
The easy answer for me to this challenge is to facilitate "connections" within learning. By so doing, we are helping to make what is learned in one place connected to what is to be learned in another. This may apply among disciplines - as when we encourage an efficiency of learning in an interdisciplinary course or learning community. It also applies within a discipline - where we invest time on "foundational" learning that is genuinely transferred to and reinforced in subsequent courses. It also happens when one learns "processes" that have utilities in a variety of settings and situations.
So we can join E.M Forster and Bill Cronon and say we should help students "only connect." When we do, we'll promote a parsimony that doesn't require damaging triage.
Fourth, are we assessing what a student has learned at the time when it really makes sense for us to want to know it? There's no question that frequent, close interval assessment of what is being learned and what is genuinely - not - beingunderstood as a course progresses is essential. And, it makes traditional, if not intuitive, sense to do an "end - of - term" assessment. After all, it is an end of term, and a student wants/needs a grade (for students who rely on financial aid, these "progress" markers are now obligatory). Also, the college needs to know if a student's presence in a given semester's course can be counted for something, or will satisfy a prerequisite for some later study.
But is the end - of - term time this the right time to find out how "digested" or how "usable" or "re - usable" a student's learning really is? A case can be made that it is not.
The problem here is with the idea of a "final grade." When the word "final" appears, it really tells us something. It tells us that the game has been defined and defined in a way that isn't especially helpful to the larger goals of learning. As noted, end - of - course, and end - of - semester assessments have some good face validity and some limited utility, but they occur a bit too soon to tell us the answers to the bigger questions. They also occur when a student might be most inclined to focus on the teacher and the teacher's role in education and not the student and the student's role. After all, it is the course that is being evaluated, and the course exists "outside" the student, while the learning resides within the student.
There's a story that's a cause for optimism here that makes me think we've got to figure out ways to assess things a little bit more "after the fact." In the case of the professor whose less - than - good evaluations were recounted in part one of this piece, the story has a very happy ending. Since the time when students took the course that didn't meet their highest standards for organization from a professor who didn't meet their highest standards for being prepared, they've discovered an amazing thing: they know more and they can do more than most of the other upper - division students in their advanced classes. It was therefore especially heartening for our professor when several students came to tell him that they attribute their current success to his course. It's a bad thing - they can now say - that they measured efficiency so crudely, now that they are learning more with what seems to them to be moderate expenditures of extra energy.
Assessed now, the results would be different. More importantly, the results - as symbols of a newly - developed "meta - cognitive" consciousness and capacity - are much more significant. The higher order goal of increasing a learner's ability to track, monitor, and stimulate his/her own learning processes is better measured while the work of knowledge "transfer" is occurring, in this case in advanced courses with greater intellectual challenges. So we should find ways to assess things a bit later than we customarily do.
Lastly, what about risk? When we ask someone to do something in a new way - a way in which they have yet to demonstrate mastery - we're asking for that person to take a risk. This is not unlike the risk that our enthusiastic professor took upon himself when he modified his course.
We like to think of risks as being good things, when they can lead to good results; when the benefits far outweigh the potential bad consequences. We need to have a clear idea of the benefits, however, in order to volunteer ourselves in exposing ourselves to bad consequences. Some would start with risk assessment. I'm suggesting we spend more time on benefits and strategies to reduce the likelihood that damage will be done.
One thing that seems very different to me about higher education today from higher education when I was in my late adolescence is how "strategic" and "intentional" so many of today's students seem to be. And, as a corollary, how systems have been created to facilitate their capacity to "manage" their educations so as to manage the "record" of their time in college. (Don't take this as my prelude to saying that we should reduce choices and options - I am in a certain awe of the new freedom and am not inclined to return to systems that might have supported still cruder forms of risk avoidance.) I'm thinking of the systems that permit students to manage their transcripts by dropping courses in which they predict that their grades will be less than excellent (It wouldn't have occurred to me to drop a course I was getting a "B" in even if I could have!) All of this is being done in the name of managing credentials so as to wring the maximum benefit from a situation that has great benefits. In the intensely competitive world inhabited by today's undergraduates, attention to these details is more than understandable. (It may account for why no one seems to take any more "risky" courses - as STEM courses are often seen to be - than they actually have to.)
So we have to find ways to encourage risk - the possibility of not doing as well as one would like to do - in the name of moving from a condition of predictability (with modest results) to one of unpredictability (with truly great results). And we have to invent a strategy for reducing the risk at the time it is most likely to rear itself - that is, in the initial stages of transition. This seems to me to be, at first, a kind of "mechanical" challenge - the academic equivalent to water wings or "floaties," you could say. Has anybody out there figured out how to do this in a way that results in students overcoming fears, taking risks, and then becoming strong "swimmers?"
If they have - and I am sure that some of you who are reading this have and would be happy to tell the rest of us how - I am equally sure it is because of one other important thing: You wanted students to take risks (and you encouraged them in the risk - taking) not because you wanted them to fail, but because you wanted them to succeed. This, to me, is the essential element of what we could call the new paradigm we need to bring to life: One that does not see science education as the crucible from which all that is dross will be burned away so that only the truly excellent residuum will remain. (This might have worked during the Cold War.) Rather, we need to be sure that we don't evaporate our chances to build a "knowledge culture" as we search for the few who will repopulate the ranks of our professions. To do this, it seems to me will require (1) an invigorated commitment to a more inclusive and open system of education in the sciences (one that much better communicates the humility of the scientific enterprise) and (2) a set of strategies that promote high standards of achievement, while reducing the risk of unnecessary harm.
Are there good ways to do this? By way of summarizing what has been discussed so far and answering the question, let me suggest that we need:
These suggestions for dealing with the challenge of asking students to take risks that have desirable potential benefits apply to us as well. We need only open and peruse a journal that gets mistakenly delivered to our mailbox to know how profoundly inadequate our understandings of things outside our particular areas of interest tend to be - it's even more deeply alarming to discover that the mistakenly delivered journal that we find so impenetrable is actually within our immediate area of interest!
So, to the eight items above, we need to add at least a ninth. This one has to do with what might appear to be an unlikely element in what otherwise seems to be a "inside baseball" educationalist list. The element I want to add is friendship.
In speaking of friendship - especially in the context of thinking about science and science education - we can recover something very important about science and that is what a deeply social and wonderfully democratic practice it is. It holds its conclusions to be provisional. Its work is conducted publicly, or at least holds its work up for public inspection. It's a process, not an end in itself. It depends to a great extent on the integrity of other participants. It may be practiced occasionally in solitude, but its business is all about things much larger than any individual self. There is much more to say about much is common to scientific and democratic practices. But what of friendship?
I included friendship in my title in an effort to say that some of the very people who we ought to befriend ("our best students") aren't on board the new pedagogical express. Earlier, I invoked Francis Bacon's idea of "digestion" in connection with learning.
To conclude, I'll return to Francis Bacon and let him make the point I want to make about friendship and how friendship between student and teacher, and among teachers, is, for me, such an important part of the answer I think we need.
Bacon identifies three "fruits of friendship" and the second relates to "understanding." He writes that friendship
It is "friendship" as Bacon understood it that will provide a social context that will enable the suggestions I made above and others you will add to become enacted. Surely, one could put these problems and their solutions in market terms: customers and providers agreeing to some kind of consumer contract that will be of some mutual benefit. But that would reduce our relationships to a form of exchange that fails to convey the preciousness, the fragility, and the importance of the desired bonds between teacher and student.
Friendship here also serves, I hope, as a tonic to a more ominous and dangerous metaphor than the free market can ever be made out to be. The market, at least, contemplates relationships. The much more fearsome condition of which I speak is that of indifference. Friendship is a broad way of characterizing an ideal type of relationship, one that seems to me to be goal worth working toward; one that frustrates an inclination towards indifference.
Education in the way best practiced requires friends, just as Bacon wrote:
|Science as Story Telling in Action|
|A project initiated by the
Serendip/SciSoc 2005 summer working group