Thursday, March 01, 2012

Trusting Students to be Good Students

An article by L. Dee Fink, retired education professor from the University of Oklahoma, appears in the January 2012 NEA Higher Education Advocate, entitled “Getting Better as Teachers.” It is an interesting article full of helpful suggestions for improvement of college teaching. Sadly, it also evidences some major gaps in reality.

Fink looked at the examples of 60 college instructors he described as “outstanding” and noted that the primary characteristic of these teachers’ performance was their ability to create what he called “natural critical learning environments.” Among the characteristics of such teachers Fink listed the following: 
  • an intense desire to continue learning
  • viewing teaching as part of a larger context
  •  the use of good learning activities such as small group work and reflections on learning
  • good assessment activities such as “periodically having students assess their own learning
  • providing frequent feedback on student work
  • using well developed rubrics to evaluate such work
Running the risk of hubristically tooting my own horn, all of these characteristics describe my own college instruction. Moreover, Fink suggests such outstanding instructors show their students they were concerned about them as human beings and deeply wanted them to learn. If there is anything that my own 30 year career as teacher – from public schools to private colleges to state colleges and universities – demonstrates, it is a deep and abiding passion for learning and for the human beings who are willing to engage that life-long process with me.

Never Blame the Students?

But one section of his article was decidedly troubling. Fink asserts that outstanding teachers necessarily hold “positive attitudes towards students.” Fink suggests that such teachers “never engaged the all-too-common practice of blaming students….” For what, it is not clear. Fink adds that outstanding teachers “never make comments like ‘Today’s students just don’t [fill in your favorite problem] like they did in my days as a student…’ or ‘You just have to force students today to work hard.’ Rather, their conversations revealed a mindset that trusted students to be good students.”

As I see it, based in my own 25 years of teaching at the college level, Fink has it right when he says that, on the whole, good instructors see their students in positive terms. If nothing else, the power of self-fulfilling prophecy would suggest the wisdom of this approach. If one doesn’t like adolescent human beings, teaching is not the right career for them. Fink is also right when he observes that making generational comparisons that almost inevitably point toward one’s own undergraduate experience as the norm if not a mythical golden age of dedicated students is not only wrong, it is highly self-serving.

Truth be told, I was not a particularly good undergraduate student, at least not my last few years at the University of Florida. While I generally went to class fairly regularly and met assignments on deadlines, I cannot say that I read every assigned reading or put sufficient time and thought into those assignments. But I also never dreamt that I was entitled to a particular grade, would never have conceived of attempting to bargain with my professor for a grade once assigned, and generally knew that my Bs and occasional As were probably merited by my performance or lack thereof.

In all fairness, I was probably not mature enough to be in college right out of high school and would likely not have made it through had I not begun at a community college with small classes and hands-on instructors. The university would have simply swallowed me up and nearly did when I transferred as a junior two years later. Indeed, it took a six month hiatus from the university to work as an hourly employee for Disney’s Mouse Factory in Orlando to clear my head enough to buckle down and complete my senior year. While I don’t suggest for one second that my own experience is somehow normative for college undergraduates generally, my observation of 25 years is that this lack of maturity – and thus readiness to be in college - may well be more common than not among the students I have taught.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that I sense a rather uncritical naiveté in Fink’s comments here when he suggests good instructors simply must trust students to be good students. The reality is that many – perhaps most - simply don’t know how to be good students. They are products of the heavily regimented Pavlovian pedagogies of standardized test driven public schools in which learning has been reduced to successfully playing a test game. Such strategies devalue reading and study for any purpose other than instrumental value and rule out critical evaluation – including self-reflection – as a matter of course. Extended socialization by this approach does not bode well for students who graduate into collegiate expectations that they be self-disciplined learners worthy of trust.

I also observe in Fink’s comments either an unawareness of or an inability/refusal to recognize changes in the collegiate environment over the past couple of decades. When students behave in entirely instrumental ways (“Is this going to be on the test?”), living into bottom line requirements with expectations of maximal grades for minimal efforts, they are responding appropriately to a culture of corporate technocracy which now presides over many colleges. Such approaches foster credentialism rather than education and its consumer-not-student self-understandings which increasingly predominate college cultures. So, while students act in the self-focused, minimalist ways they’ve been taught are appropriate if not valuable, that hardly makes such students trustworthy when it comes to being good students. Indeed, it really points in the opposite direction.

Don’t Mess With Texas

Perhaps an even more important element in this picture is the increasing role that consumerism generally plays in the lives of college instructors. The state of Texas has recently begun implementing a program in which consumer surveys called Student Perceptions of Instruction have replaced instructor evaluations. The local edition of this survey used at my institution begins with the question “What did you like best about this class?,” a question which tells instructors little about their teaching and more than they need to know about their consumer’s perceived desires.

Sadly, in Texas such surveys now play a major role in decisions about ongoing employment, promotion and salary of instructors who are increasingly more likely to be untenured than not. The studies of such practices show a fairly clear pattern: instructors who demand much from their students and prove unwilling to live into their grade entitlement (that has given rise to rampant grade inflation) are required to pay for their principles by low ratings in consumerist surveys.

A related element from the Texas program – which Florida, among other states, is considering adopting - is the use of class enrollment and retention rates for determining ongoing employment, promotion and salary. Such a program provides a powerful weapon in the hands of students-turned-consumers. Instructors who now must do anything they can to prevent students from dropping their courses are likely to sacrifice academic integrity rather quickly if it means keeping the lights on and the beans on the table (not to mention the ability to see a doctor to treat their situational depression). And with the rise of online sites like which allows bottom lining students to warn fellow maximal grade/minimal effort peers to avoid instructors who demand too much and reward too miserly, non-tenured instructors with declining class rolls can find themselves playing the adjunct game.

Are Students Trustworthy?

 The question Fink seems not to have considered here is rather fundamental: Are students trustworthy given the context in which they exist today? An instructor is naïve if not foolish to simply presume that they are, particularly in an increasingly hostile work environment in which students-turned-consumers have an ever greater upper hand in decision-making which could be potentially life-changing for instructors.

But perhaps even more basic to the consideration of what makes for outstanding teachers, the presumption that students emerging from standardized test-driven curricula of public schools, who by their own self-reporting have had to study very little and read even less, will suddenly become responsible students upon crossing the threshold of academia is not terribly reasonable. Indeed, given that they have been trained to hold inordinate senses of entitlement to make what are ultimately pedagogical decisions about work load and grading, is it reasonable to expect anything less from them? Have they not become precisely what we have trained them to be?

Certainly it is tempting for those who read critiques of student attitudes and behaviors such as this one to confuse – perhaps deliberately - a critical assessment of our college students today with a wholesale dismissal of these students. In such an unreflective approach, any criticism is nothing less than a bashing. Sadly, not only is such a view highly uncritical, It is also serves to avoid the very context in which these behaviors occur for which we are responsible as well. Moreover, it avoids a wealth of well documented critiques of student behaviors and attitudes today by dismissing them as mindless bashing, the product of generational envy which would judge our children on the terms of a presumed golden age of college performance coinciding with our own careers as students.

There is no small amount of intellectual dishonesty at work in such responses.

I also sense a supply side economic theory elephant lumbering around in the back of this discussion that would assert that if teachers just “do it right,” the students will miraculously somehow become educated human beings. Not only is such a view naïve, it demonstrates a decided lack of understanding of how education actually occurs. In short, it misses the essential requirement that actual students must always engage the learning process for a true education to have a prayer of being realized. Not surprisingly, supply side approaches let everyone off the hook but the teacher, an all-too-common phenomenon in a culture as historically anti-intellectual as our own.

An honest assessment of a documented failure of students to learn may well require instructors to reexamine methods, materials and expectations. And it is more than fair to criticize instructors who refuse to do so and blame them for their shortcomings if not penalize them. But if that is true for the instructor portion of the learning community that Fisk and educators such as myself so clearly cherish, it must also be true for the student half of that community as well. To suggest that students can never be blamed for their own failures is simply ludicrous. Consider the toxic lessons that reinforcing a complete lack of accountability would teach.

But then, let me tell you about……

As a final note, I need to add a caveat to the argument I’ve laid out here. In every class I have ever taught there has been at least one student if not a handful of students among the many that I actually could trust to be good students. They rarely complain when they are required to take content quizzes or complete assignments prior to class to insure that the reading is done. Indeed, they often understand implicitly why such measures need to be taken by responsible instructors. They inevitably know when assignments are due. They are leaders in their group presentations and discussions. Most of all, they are the trump card students in any class discussion who, when everyone else has blown off the reading for that class, you can call on them to offer a thoughtful reflection on that reading so that the instructor does not simply end up conducting a soliloquy.

Life as an instructor would be nigh unbearable without these trustees. But, sadly, the fact that I can tell you their names years after their last class with me suggests the reality that they are, in fact, the exceptions and not the rule. 

My guess is that Dee Fisk probably holds a more nuanced understanding than what this article suggests and in all fairness to him, I would need to read more of his thought in the context of his publications to offer an informed critique of his educational theory. Sadly, nuance does not shine through his comments published in the Advocate. And outstanding teachers, those who wish to become outstanding and their students deserve more well rounded advice than what they will find in this article.

 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

No comments: