Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Kansas State Video: Some Preliminary Thoughts

There is an interesting youtube video making the rounds of the internet. It purports to be the work of a Kansas State University professor, Michael Wesch. According to the video, his students were encouraged to share their experience of higher education online and the contents of that survey ultimately became the substance for the video filming. It is provocative in a number of ways. Before reading my comments here, watch the video at this URL:


The video begins with an odd use of a quote by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan: "Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns subjects, and schedules”. The producers then provide a series of students holding various handwritten or computer generated messages which supposedly spell out the experience of today’s college student. Their comments are well worth considering even as I sense that they fail to make the case for the quote with which they begin.

As an opening consideration, I would like to defend structure in college classrooms. Clearly, all means should further the ultimate end they are designed to serve and all of us have been in situations where rules and procedures became ends in themselves for anal retentive taskmasters. And yet, in one segment of this video, students add up the time they spend working, listening to music, watching videos and television and, oh yeah, studying (3 hours/day) and the total comes up to 26.5 hours/day. In short, our students today, much like we students of yesterday, have a difficult time with time management. Clearly, structure is a needed value in higher education today, not simply an antiquated relic of yesterday.

In years past, I began my college classes with the expectable statement that “You are all adults and you can choose whether you want to come to class if you want to.” It was the early 1980s. With the rigid, bell-driven scheduling of high school still in mind with its priority for sports-related events and its imperative of keeping students busy – and thus out of trouble – at all times, I felt I would not fall into the same traps into which my own teachers had fallen. I was generous with grading, allowing students to turn in assignments the class after they were due with a minimum number of late points taken.

Since then, I have taught at three community colleges, one private university and two state universities in a career of college level pedagogy that stretches back 23 years now. For the last seven years I have taught at the University of Central Florida. About five years ago, I began to notice some problems in my laissez-faire approach to teaching.

First, I began to notice that some of my students rarely came to class. Under my “you’re an adult” approach, that signaled to me that they had agreed to absorb the hit to their grade that decision would require. What I began to notice was that it was often precisely the students who were frequently absent that were most likely to challenge their grades at the end of the term. It was also these same students who frequently gave their group members a hellacious time any time a group presentation was due, often leaving to the responsible students all of the work and then demanding to share in the group grade. Clearly, my policy on attendance was not working.
I had also adopted the attitude that if students didn’t want to do the reading, so be it. I simply assigned it, expected students to come to class prepared to discuss the materials and conducted my class with those who were prepared.

About five years ago I began to notice that I was conducting soliloquies or limited dialogues with two or three students more often than not. Calling on students who were not participating often failed to elicit any coherent comments. One encounter in particular stands out in my mind. I called on a young man, a generally polite and bright honors student who would later leave school to do his obligatory Mormon mission work, only to receive a response that indicated he had not read the rather minimal reading prior to class. When I asked him if he had actually read the material, he responded, “What would be your point?”

It was thereafter that I adopted a series of new approaches to teaching. I began to take roll each class, giving .5 points participation score per class and allowing for a two day absence grace period to allow for the inevitable sickness, death in the family or the perennial grandparent needing a ride to the airport at exam or paper time. After two absences, I began to deduct .5 points each absence and counted the final attendance grade toward participation.

In my Intro to the Humanities classes, I instituted a series of online content quizzes which closed prior to class time requiring students to read the text and take the quizzes before coming to class. Originally I gave students two chances on the quizzes thinking it was better to use this “stick” sparingly and hopefully make it a learning experience. I quickly found that my students were simply opening the quiz to find the questions, going to the text to find the answers, and then taking the second quiz. In response, I now split the 10 questions into two different quizzes and take the higher of the two scores, again requiring students to read the text if they wish to gain a decent score on the quizzes.

To grade my group activities, I began to require students to grade their own efforts and those of their group mates using a criteria that didn’t provide a passing score until the student had come to class with the assignment completed, prepared to discuss it. I also began to grade their evaluations themselves, looking for the slackers who simply gave themselves and everyone in the group 10/10 with cursory comments like “Good job!” and little else.

I often say that my students have trained me well. They have taught me many tricks on how to get around assignments and how to avoid the responsibilities students by definition assume when they become a part of any learning community. But the most important lesson they have taught me is simply that my presumptions about their adulthood were, in many cases, at best premature.

At some level, our students are a reflection of the values they have been taught. Noel James Entwistle has provided an interesting assessment of approaches to learning which students take. His research found that a few students used a deep approach to learning in which the intention to understand material learned, to interact vigorously with the content, to apply it to one’s lifeworld all marking an intrinsic value of learning. More students were likely to take a strategic approach which features a focus on grades, organization of time and effort for the greatest effect with the least effort, use previous exam papers to predict questions and are alert to cues about marking schemes. Then there are the bottom liners who use the surface approach, relying on rote memorization and regurgitation of data they believe instructors are seeking, tend to stick closely to course bare minimum requirements and are generally motivated by a fear of failure. As I often say to my bottom liners, “The problem with bottom lining is that it requires perfection. The only thing below the bottom line is failure.”

Clearly there are potential problems with the deep approach to learning. Do students necessarily have time to deeply reflect upon every single idea posed in their college careers? Could this not become a means of avoidance, by focusing on a limited set of ideas deeply while neglecting others? But, truth be told, most instructors cherish the deep learners who come to them seeking not just to know what’s on the test but its significance, why it was assigned in the first place. Sadly, I believe the entire class-driven, factory approach to most higher education today both engenders the surface and strategic approaches as well as evidences the values that students perceive they should hold regarding higher education.

Strategic learning focused on the highest grades for the least amount of effort readily reveals itself as egocentrism at work. The perception that “It’s all about me” is charming in 8 year olds. It is less so in 18 year olds. Moreover, the notion that one simply has to learn a set of skills taken out of a bag of tricks as a means of entry into the “real world,” which inevitably means the work world lurks around in the background of this approach. One might ask themselves why the work world should be seen as any more real than any other aspect of our socially constructed world, What is any less “real” about education, a valued part of every culture known to human beings?

The darker implications of the surface approach speak to the role that class plays in the United States, that dirty secret we Americans avoid acknowledging at all costs. A surface learner is driven by fear of failure. But, for the most part, many of these students didn’t want to be in college in the first place, at least not at this point in their lives. Parental fear of falling drives many low motivated middle class kids into colleges as Barbara Ehrenreich’s research readily demonstrates. Then there are the students who don’t know what they want to do with their lives who simply go with the flow of classmates into college, many for lack of any other perceivable alternatives. In both cases, these are students who make good arguments for mandatory national service programs right out of high school followed by life-experienced adults thereafter attending college on a GI Bill type scholarship.

Strategic approaches to learning can readily produce certifiably degreed workers. My university stamps them out by the thousands each year. But do such approaches produce educated human beings? One of the students in Wesch’s video accurately notes that “When I graduate I will have a job that probably doesn’t exist today.” It’s a critical observation of today’s work market. It’s also a striking indictment of strategic, vocation skills-driven approaches to college educations.

Job skills learned in colleges today have remarkably short shelf lives. What the worker who will survive and adapt in this work market requires cannot be taught, it can only be developed. That includes the ability to communicate clearly in writing and verbally using standardized (and thus comprehensible to all) language skills; the ability to concentrate long enough to read, digest and critically reflect upon material; the ability to apply ideas to factual scenarios posed; the ability to creatively develop new ideas based upon that which is already known; and the ability to work with other human beings in small and large groups. And it requires a student who actively engages their own learning process, not a consumer with an enormous sense of entitlement to be entertained while memorizing enough data to be regurgitated on command like Pavlov’s dog on a test to achieve a passing score. In short, it requires becoming the educated human being that liberal arts curricula have always promoted.

I find it odd that in my middle age I have developed what some might readily call conservative values regarding pedagogy, particularly given my generally radical approaches to the other areas of interest in my life – law, religion and society. I suppose that as a fifth generation educator and third generation college educator, I have always had some tendencies toward being establishment in my thinking about education. But more and more I find myself looking back on my own college experience which stretched over 17 years in total and asking myself what worked and what did not. What I find is that it was from the classes in which much was demanded of me, small enough classes that teachers knew my name and missed my face when I was absent, classes which required me to bring work to class with me to discuss intelligently and in an informed manner - thus insuring my preparation for class - that I learned the most. And it was precisely the classes where a laissez-faire “you’re an adult, you can choose whether to come or not” approach was used that I floundered. In retrospect, I think I interpreted those messages as simply “I don’t care about you or your learning.” And I sense my students today hear those messages the same way.

I have much more to say about Wesch’s provocative video. Stay tuned.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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