Monday, April 12, 2010

Bad Gardeners, Bad Mommies, Bad Teachers

In my first year of graduate school, I took a semester-long course in the teaching of composition. This course was required for anybody who wanted to teach in the program, and it involved a mix of practical instruction (how to construct assignments, how to construct syllabi), shadowing of other instructors, working in the writing center, and theoretical readings. In other words, it was pretty comprehensive, as such courses go. (This was during my MA, by the way. I had a similar required 8-week-long "workshop" in my PhD program that expected nowhere near as much, and that contributed nowhere near as much to the teacher I've ultimately become.)

Anyway. In that semester-long course, one exercise has stuck with me after all of these (more than 10) years. First, we were asked to come up with a metaphor for the relationship between teacher and student. I don't recall whether we did this in groups or on our own, but whatever the case, the outcome was that the vast majority of students in the class talked about the role of a teacher being like that of a gardener - that we plant the seeds (course content), we tend the plants (feedback), we harvest the fruit/veggies (students demonstrate what they've learned through their grades on tests or papers). All in all, a pretty teacher-centered metaphor, right? Basically, we do all the work, and from our hard work, we get to enjoy delicious salads and good nutrition. In this metaphor, students are the objects that we do something to, and depending on what we do (fertilizer? weeding? individual conferences? multiple opportunities to practice the skills of the course?) students either grow or they die.

So once we all did that, however, the instructors of the course then had us do a variety of readings about student-centered learning. The main one that I recall was Paulo Freire's "The Banking Concept of Education," but I believe that there were a few others (maybe something from bell hooks' Teaching to Transgress? and then maybe something else that was more about data on what kinds of approaches work best in the comp classroom?). At any rate, the point of the exercise, and then the readings that followed, was to demonstrate that a theory of teaching in which the instructor holds all of the responsibility (and power) and students hold none is ultimately pretty much antithetical to what "education" is supposed to mean. (That's an oversimplification, but I do think it's the bottom line.) And so then, after discussing the readings, we were asked to do a follow-up exercise in which we tried to come up with a metaphor for the teacher/student relationship that wasn't all about the teacher - that wasn't about the green thumb who makes delicious vegetables happen.

I think it's an example of just how pervasive a "teacher-centered" approach to thinking about education is that I can't recall the follow-up metaphor at which I arrived. I do remember how difficult a time all of us had in coming up with student-centered metaphors for what happens in the classroom, though, and I have always thought about this exercise when I am tempted to take all of the credit or blame for what my students achieve or fail to achieve. At the end of the day, if I believe that what happens in the classroom is about me, I'm really doing my students a disservice.

This exercise came to mind today when I read Historiann's post about a newspaper column that at turns attacked tenure as protecting ineffective teachers and suggested that the path toward improving the education of students lies in more stringent evaluation of teachers.

Now, this is not going to be a post about tenure and its merits or problems, whether in P-12 education or in higher education. I believe in tenure. You may not, but let me repeat that tenure is not what this post is about. This post is, rather, about the idea that the path to improving student learning (or, at least, pass-rates on tests mandated by agencies external to the classroom) is to look not at actual, individual students but rather to look at teachers.

Now, this way of thinking about teaching is nothing new. It's been characteristic of the ways in which we have thought about public, P-12 education for at least the past 20 years when state-mandated testing for high school graduation gained traction as a practice across the country, and then later with the federal mandates of NCLB. These effects are now being felt in higher education with great urgency, with increasing demands of accrediting agencies for program-wide outcomes assessment data.

Let me pause for a moment to make something clear: I am not arguing that teacher's performance in the classroom should not be evaluated. I'm also not arguing that program-wide (or institution-wide) assessment is a bad thing, in and of itself. I am questioning, however, the idea that any such evaluation or assessment directly and uncomplicatedly will benefit any and all deficiencies in student learning.

Because, here's the thing. The only way that the above would directly and uncomplicatedly benefit any and all deficiencies that we perceive in student learning is if we believe that Freire's "banking concept of education" is, in fact, what education is. For Freire, the "banking concept" works like this: students are passive "banks" in which teachers deposit knowledge; at the end of term, teachers then "withdraw" the knowledge that they've deposited, and then they issue a statement (grade) for whether the "bank" gives back all of what was originally deposited. There is no critical thinking: knowledge is deposited by the teacher; students spit that knowledge back out, sort of like how an ATM spits money out when we make a withdrawal. When you go to the ATM, there is no potential for you to get back more money than is in the account; if you haven't been keeping track of your balance (or, if we stay with this metaphor, teaching effectively), you may get back less money than you thought was in there (subpar performance), or you may get a slip that says "insufficient funds" (a failing effort).

As an alternative to the "banking concept," Freire offers an alternative: the "problem-posing method" of education. Note the difference in terminology between "concept" (passive, object-oriented) and "method" (active, practice-oriented). The problem-posing method is about encouraging students to ask questions, to pursue original lines of inquiry, to challenge the instructor, to determine the shape of his/her own education (with the expertise of the instructor guiding that inquiry, of course). Now, if we think that the problem-posing method is potentially valuable, how can we "assess" its effectiveness? Doing so is a lot more complicated than assessing the banking concept, and it requires that we attend to students themselves and not merely to teachers who deposit knowledge into them. In giving students ownership over their educations, at least to some degree, we would have to acknowledge that evaluating teachers isn't necessarily going to produce gains in student learning or improvement in education generally. Because at the end of the day, such an approach to student learning and to education isn't all about the teacher.

Critics of the argument that I'm outlining here might say, "But of course the move to gauge the effectiveness of education by evaluating teachers is about student learning! The idea is that we'd evaluate teachers based on the performance of their students! How is that not about students?" My response would be that this sort of measurement assumes that inputs from teachers will be identical to outputs generated by students. And I think that assumption does not - and should not - mirror what actually happens when students are thinking. Instead, I would argue that what's going on with this sort of measurement strategy is that we don't really care about students at all - whether they think or not - but rather that we care about disciplining and regulating their instructors. And I think that impulse to discipline is deeply gendered, and it has to do with the feminization of teaching as a profession.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, here's what I wrote about this in my comment to Historiann's post:

I’m especially interested in the call to evaluate teachers based on student performance, particularly in terms of the gender implications of such a move. I feel like this connects a lot to the whole “our boys are not succeeding” rhetoric (this is not to say that there aren’t issues with how K-12 education serves male students vs. female – only to call into question the rhetoric). Basically, the rhetoric in both cases constructs teachers as bad mommies who aren’t doing their jobs if students don’t “succeed” by whatever external measurement is imposed.

If students (gendered male, whatever the “actual” sex) can’t excel, get into the right college, get a job, then it’s the teacher (gendered female, whatever the “actual” sex) who must be punished/regulated, much in the way that mothers must be punished/regulated for breast-feeding/not, making their own baby food/not, eating the right/wrong things during pregnancy, staying home/choosing daycare, as if a choice in one direction or the other would produce perfect children.

The discourse reduces the development of children/students to the performance of the phallic mother/teacher, and it fails to take into account the actual children/students in question. Now, of course, this gives us somebody to blame, and it’s a much easier thing to do that than to actually look at the complexity of human development. So in that regard, I get it.

But let me go further in my explanation, in order to link it back to my discussion of student-centered vs. teaching-centered approaches to learning. (This is still a little fuzzy in my head, but I think you'll get the gist of what I'm saying.) A truly student-centered ("problem-posing method") approach, one that values critical thinking, original inquiry, and "active learning," is often what legislators, tax-payers, and accrediting bodies would agree is desirable. However, having internalized the "banking concept," they only believe that those things are possible if a Subject Who Knows (read: teacher as authoritarian purveyor of Knowledge) administers the skills and information that they would say is required for those things to happen. Education is supposed to be something that both socializes and regulates students (a subject-position that I would also argue is feminized in our culture), and that can only happen if there is a figure of authority controlling what happens in the classroom. With the feminization of the teaching profession (and when I talk about this I'm not talking in a simplistic way about having a female teacher in front of the class, but rather the perception that teaching is an "appropriate" profession for women, so whether we're talking about male teachers or female teachers, we're still talking about a feminized profession), faith is lost in the "authority" of those who administer education. Thus, teachers must be policed, disciplined, and punished when students don't "succeed" by whatever measure, because at the end of the day, while they possess phallic authority by virtue of their position at the head of the class, they don't possess "real" authority in a patriarchal (or "banking concept") economy.

(I know my theorizing above is sloppy, but I'm thinking this through as I'm writing. Forgive me.)

At any rate. If we believe that students are passive objects upon which gifted teachers work their magic, or if we believe that students are passive objects upon which terrible teachers perpetrate harm, then we don't, at least from my perspective, actually believe in student learning. Heck, I'd say that we don't believe students are actually human beings with agency. Nevertheless, a more complicated picture of what student-centered instruction looks like, or a more complicated picture of the process by which students learn in a classroom environment, does not neatly fit into a business ("banking concept") model for education, nor does it produce the kind of data that such a model values.

Do I believe that teachers should be evaluated on their work? Yes. Do I believe that we must try to educate students as well as we possibly can? Yes. But I wonder at the belief of so many that the best strategies for doing so are so simple as administering tests and calculating pass rates.

(And no, I'm not going to offer some grand alternative to these strategies in this post. I've got work to do.)


human said...

Have you ever tried to talk to undergraduates about these issues, like during the introduction to a course, perhaps, and explain that they are going to be expected to act like people and not plants or objects? I wonder if engaging the students in this kind of discussion would improve their willingness to participate in and engage with the class.

Thanks for a really cool post that made me think lots!

Dr. Crazy said...

Human - I actually teach the Freire essay every time I teach composition to incoming freshmen. It's tough for them to get through, but it works really well not only as a model for argumentative essay-writing but also to start a discussion about what "education" actually is. I've also often used Richard Rodriguez's "The Achievement of Desire" for similar reasons.

Bardiac said...

Freire's brilliant because he makes the imagery so visible and that helps me question it.

And seriously, I was waiting for your grand alternative!

I hate the students as widgets coming out of a factory model of education. Bleargh.

My mind is too stifled, at least right now, to come up with a student-centered model metaphor, but I'm trying.

Historiann said...

Super-smart, Dr. Crazy, even without a grand alternative. One of the big problems we're fighting here is that there IS such a thing as ONE PROGRAM OR SOLUTION FOR ALL FOREVER!!!, right? As you so eloquently point out, teachers are not building ATMs or watering plants, we're dealing with human beings embedded in a particular social/cultura/familial/historical context, so the "standardized parts" of mass education don't suit everyone equally well.

Janice said...

Fascinating. I wouldn't expect a grand alternative at this stage, although it would be fun to come up with one.

A problem I see with most of the metaphors about teaching, teacher-centred or student-centred, is that they're all subject/object. There's one actor and one passive figure. Whether it's student-centred learning with calls for teachers to provide appropriate materials, tools, models and feedback or the teacher-centred where we water their precious flowery selves (ewww!), either model puts all the action in the hands of one figure. Both, however, can be tilted toward further passivity on the part of the actors (student-centred systems that put the blame on not-good-enough teachers for all failings of the students; teacher-centred ideologies that blame the "bad seed" or "poor soil" or, very occasionally, "the inexperienced gardener").

If we embrace student-centred models, we need to understand that students are a key factor in their own education. Did you see the Time article about Roland Fryer Jr.'s studies of student incentives to improve their own performance (18,000 kids involved in the research and it was interesting that just straight money for grades wasn't the best way to inspire improvement)? The article title makes me cringe, though: Should kids be bribed to do well in school?.

Dr. Crazy said...

FYI: after racking my brains to recall the metaphor with which I replaced the garden one, I think I used some sort of a theater metaphor - whether of a play or an improv troup - where it's essential for all of the actors to play their roles and to engage with the other members in order to have the ultimate production.

Another one that works would be that of an automobile. The teacher may be the steering wheel, but the students would be the engine, the wheels, all the other parts of the car. While you can't get to the grocery store in a car without a steering wheel, having a steering wheel doesn't mean you have transportation.

Or something like that. :)

Unknown said...

Oh, I love that Freire essay, which I also read in a great graduate school course on pedagogy. We also read an essay on feminist pedagogy, and I believe the metaphor they used was the midwife, that we as teachers are in the classroom to help the students bring out the knowledge and skills that are inside of them, and to help those ideas grow and take shape. It helps me, as a model, to see myself as the person in the room who's interested in the growth and development of the others, not as the "sage on stage," etc. Great post!

? said...

The assault on tenure (at least at the college level) has taken a different tact. Now they are just replacing full time staff with adjuncts-especially in the humanities, which face a bleak future. Frank Donoghues' "The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities" sums it up well. The corporatization of higher learning will drastically effect students who will be increasingly dealing with low paid adjuncts, most of whom don't even have office hours. If you've been following this you'll be aware that tenured professorships have been vanishing at a rapid rate for some time now.

quixote said...

I don't know if it's student centered, or if it's even a metaphor. More of a description, perhaps. But I've always thought of education as a journey. You have compadres (not always the same ones), people who give you maps, or help push your car when the battery dies, or just add local color. Parts of the journey may be guided, or not. You learn from them all. You learn the most helping others to learn. What you learn depends on, well, on everything. That's how the universe is. All connected.

Which means capturing all that in a five-part multiple choice question is a downright Zen koan.

Susan said...

This is a great discussion. I love trying to find a metaphor that explains what we think happens in education. I don't have brilliant ideas for metaphors, but there should BE metaphors. Counterpoint? You need two lines, and they are not necessarily going in the same direction!

This also connects to my general complaint about our accreditation process, which assumes that students learn what we want them to learn, rather than something else. A student's outcomes for a course may include, but extend beyond, our goals for the course.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Not that we did your exercise, but the metaphor I've used since grad school is conducting. Students are musicians, and I bring their individual contributions into a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Bardiac said...

I like conducting, Dame Eleanor.

I was thinking and came up with building a house. I can provide the lumber, and we can develop a blueprint (or get it, or one of us can do it alone), but the students have to put things together to make them into a house. (Notice how I made an effort to avoid "scaffold"?)

Shane in SLC said...

Much as I usually hate sports metaphors, I've always been fond of the teaching-as-coaching model. I can give students information and resources, and I can inspire and motivate. But I can't take the ball and score a touchdown; that's up to them.

I also use the coach/personal trainer metaphor when students try to play the "consumer" card. Yes, they've paid their tuition, but that only buys them the opportunity to compete, not a guarantee of winning...

Anonymous said...

we had to do the same exercise in my pedagogy course and read the same essay re: banking. I remember a friend really liked the image of teacher as herder of cats.

I think I went with re-routing a stream. I dig a ditch over here and try to get the water to flow in this direction. It's got a sense of negotiating the power of the class as a whole, but very little sense of the individual.

I find I like the idea of herding cats more and more...each one trying to go its own way.

Unknown said...

Hi, I would be interested in reading Freire's article. Do you remember where it is from, or where to find it?

Dr. Crazy said...

The Freire essay is from his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but if you just google "the banking concept of education" you can find the text online in the first link that comes up.