"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What works

I've been sitting on this piece for a while, but since I am in the throes of final exams as I write, it seems appropriate to share it now.  You should read the post yourself, but to summarize, a college professor describes his process of switching from in-class timed essays as his final assessment to independently-written work as a more valid and accurate measure of his students' progress in his course.

I applaud this professor for his reflectivity, and the reasons he gives for changing his methodology all make excellent good sense.  His course sounds very rewarding, and I am certainly looking forward to adjusting the general-literature high school courses I teach to be more thematically unified.  He even writes so temptingly about the Margaret Atwood novel Oryx and Crake that I thought about putting it on my summer reading list, until I read the synopsis and realized it has all the irritating and tedious qualities of science fiction -- made-up words, arbitrary premises, implausible psychology and politics.  Yes, I realize that if you are going to write about humans, things will be implausible and unpredictable, which is why I prefer history, in which it is impossible to argue with the events or a play, in which you see the implausible performed in front of you -- again, it cannot be denied because it is made palpable.

Everything else just strikes me as Lewis Carroll.  But then, I am becoming impatient with just about all fiction.

But the real point I want to make is that this fellow persisted in a procedure which he knew was not just unsatisfactory, but downright counterproductive and completely worthless at producing reliable data about student achievement for 15 years.  And every semester.  He did something that didn't work 30 times before he decided to change it.

Perhaps that defines the difference between college instruction and us secondary and middle-school peons.  My first year of teaching -- before I knew anything, I looked at the numbers for the vocabulary instruction system I had inherited (the dreadful outdated Sadlier-Oxford series) and realize that the numbers had not moved at all over the year.  The students who scored high at the beginning of the year scored well at the end.  The students who struggled continued to struggle.  Was it difficult to jettison that?  When it took up at least one-fifth of my instructional time, and sometimes more?  Easiest thing in the world.  What I substituted was far more work intensive for me -- I got a list of SAT words and identified them in the assigned reading, and built exercises and quizzes from that -- but many students showed real improvement.

True, one often has to delay jettisoning a non-working portion of a course until there is an alternative that has some possibility of being more effective.  But that's what summers are for.  But knowing how awful it feels to persist with something that demonstrably doesn't work even once -- I can't imagine how you could keep going at it 30 times.  (And read the comments in the post.  The writers make some intelligent observations about learning in college -- which were made and measured scientifically in K-12 pedagogy about 25 or 30 years ago.  Next, I expect some college professor to announce the startling discovery that students learn in different ways from each other!)

I come to teaching from the performing arts, and what I love about the latter is their pure empiricism.  It's OK if nobody knows that Moby Dick was great until 30 years after Melville dies.  But a play, a film, a piece of music must work right now or it fails on its own terms.  Because the way the artist in the performing arts develops and improves is to listen to the audience.  Same with teachers.  What doesn't work with students, doesn't work, no matter what the theorists and consultants say. 

Now, back to work on my perpetual motion machine!

No comments:

Post a Comment