Monday, February 21, 2011

Is Your Teaching Stuck in an Industrial Paradigm?

Jonathan Rees

A few weeks ago Heather Cox Richardson recommended a video embedded in a post on this blog. I’ve been kind of freaked out about what I heard and saw on it ever since. In it, among other things, Sir Ken Robinson (a guy who I can tell you literally nothing about other than the fact that he’s obviously much smarter than I am) suggests that education, as we know it, is organized along the lines that factories were during the mid-nineteenth century.

Time periods are divided by ringing bells. The instruction in particular subjects is neatly divided into different rooms. Children are brought through the system in batches based upon how old they are. This educational system that we all take for granted was conceived, Robinson suggests, in the image of factories in order to produce people to work in factories.

For me, the idea that I’m doing anything along the lines of a factory is deeply disturbing. Had you asked me why I wanted to be a professor before I started graduate school, I might actually have said in order to be sure that I would never have to work in a factory. I study labor history in large part because I have such great respect for the people who did work so much harder than I do for much less reward. And yet, I don’t want my classroom to resemble a factory setting in any way!

Sometimes, though, I know that factory thinking raises its ugly head while I’m teaching. Whenever I get in one of those funks brought on by a large batch of uninspired answers coming from the students in front of me, I always imagine myself as Brian in that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where he addresses all his new followers from a window.

“You are all individuals,” he tells them.

“We are all individuals,” they reply in unison.

“You are all different.”

“We are all different.”

“I’m not,” says a guy in the right foreground, just to be difficult.

How do we get more students to think for themselves, even if (like that difficult guy in the foreground) they don’t even realize that they’re doing it? Robinson, who’s mostly discussing secondary school students, seems to be suggesting that the best way to break the paradigm is to give up on standardized testing. Don’t measure output. Measure creativity. Create an incentive system in the classroom designed to foster creativity—the same kind of creativity that kids see in the new electronic media that surrounds them every moment of every day other than when they’re in school.

Leaving the current assessment craze in higher ed aside, trying to break the paradigm in the college history class seems like a much more difficult task than it would be for secondary schools, as the vast majority of the colleagues I know would already rather retire than ever hand their students a standardized or multiple-choice history test. We grade on composition, not memorization, but an essay produced as part of a system conceived along the lines of a factory probably isn’t the best possible essay it can be.

So what can you do to foster creativity in our students other than just shout “Be creative!” and hope you don’t get a response like “How shall we be creative, oh Lord!”? (That’s a variation on another Life of Brian joke there, by the way, but I can’t explain it on a family-friendly blog.)

Trying to make myself feel better, it wasn’t too hard to think of a few things I’ve already done that at least in theory promote this effect. For instance, I’ve tossed out the textbook this semester (and have been blogging about it here). You can’t get much more top down than most textbooks, with their declarations of what happened coming from an omniscient narrator with the voice of God. No ambiguity. No nuance.

But now I feel like I should be doing more. Robinson alludes to collaborative work and implies that more interdisciplinary instruction can be done, but alas doesn’t suggest how. So what are you doing to break down the education/industrial paradigm or have you (like me) not yet fully come to terms with the fact that you’re perpetuating it?

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo. He blogs about history, academic labor issues and other matters at More or Less Bunk.


Randall said...

I hesitate some to let go of the text. (Maybe it's because of that omniscient voice therein.) But perhaps it would be liberating?

hcr said...

Didn't mean to freak you out, Jonathan! And I love the Monty Python stuff.

My sense was that the Robinson clip was directly primarily at K-12 and to the grand idea that we should send everyone to classical educations. Of course, he's coming from a different system, and doesn't have to grapple with the philosophical implications of differentiated education for America's democracy-- something our educational system has not successfully grappled with yet.

I do think I'll work on collaborative assessments, as I wrote about before, seeing, for example, if students can pull together the answer to a historical question using legitimate sources from the internet. But haven't gotten further than that.

And I do use a text if students ask for it, emphasizing that it is useful primarily for setting up a timeline, and that it is only one way to approach the material. I constantly emphasize that I am teaching my own interpretation of history, and urge them to argue with it; telling them constantly that my primary goal is to get them to think for themselves. While my course themes are always open to argument, students rarely feel like we're on even enough ground to disagree with me. So I try to emphasize that they need to evaluate things for themselves by taking strong and in-your-face stands not about history-- when I am very carefully fact based all the time and pick evenly on every political group-- but about rock music (I'm a big fan of the classic rock guitarists). I slip music references into lectures, then, in asides, tell them I'm always right about music and I won't hear any argument about the relative merits of Eric Clapton and Taylor Swift. Clapton is god and that's the end of the story. Since this is a discussion they can all get into, it's not more than a couple of weeks or so before they're arguing with me. First about music... then about history.

I don't know though. I think maybe the best answer is that our students are smarter than we give them credit for. Not all of them, of course, but many of them. When I can find a way to give them room, they often surprise me with their creativity. (Their writing skills, though? That's a different matter.)

I hope you'll keep us posted on whatever you find that works. (And on more Monty Python.)