Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Between Lecturing and Homework: Alfie Kohn’s Teacher Trap

Alfie Kohn, in his book The Homework Myth, offers a challenge aimed at the very structure of how we ask questions about education. Most of the book is devoted to attacking the institution of homework. Kohn, though, wishes to completely overhaul the entire system of education. He even objects to the hierarchal authoritarian structure of the teacher lecturing and giving grades. In the dystopian description of modern-day education:

Teachers are invited to consider how often they call on students to answer questions, whether they're allowing enough time for a response to be formulated, maybe even whether they are unconsciously calling on more boys than girls. But they are assuredly not prompted to think about why they are calling on students in the first place. Why should the teacher's questions, as opposed to the kids', drive the lesson? What would happen if the students didn't raise their hands – and had to figure out together how to avoid interrupting one another? What would happen if the power was shared and classrooms became more democratic? (pg. 91)

May I point out that even the Congress has an elaborate set of rules as to who gets to speak? I guess this just goes to prove that members of Congress really are a bunch of children.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded/open-eared conservative. My philosophy is one that would easily be recognizable to historians as that of the reforming conservative; someone who is defending the status quo, by suggesting modest changes in the hope of forestalling the radical overthrow of the system. This certainly applies to my views on education. I operate within a conservative framework; I lecture, I ask questions, I hope for responses and I most certainly do assign homework. The content of my lectures may be slightly unorthodox and my style of speaking certainly is. This does not change the fact that I operate out of distinctively orthodox foundations.

To take Kohn up on his challenge, out of sincere respect and a belief that he asks a question deserving a response, I would gladly support a more democratic classroom where the students took a more active role in deciding which questions are important. The graduate school seminar comes to mind. We would have as many as a dozen students in a room talking about a given topic. The professor would be there, but he would usually be just one of the people there taking part in the discussion to such an extent that it would not be immediately obvious to an outside observer which person was the professor, particularly since there are middle-aged graduate students. I have been in classes where every week a student was assigned to lead the discussion. Often it would be that student, and not the professor, lecturing for most of the class.

Before I get carried away by my fond dreams of graduate school and attempt to replicate the graduate classroom there is the reality that I am not dealing with graduate students. This is more than just semantics. There is a profound difference between the college and high school students that I have taught and my colleagues in graduate school. Students in a graduate-level history program have usually spent years studying history. (In my case, I have been actively into history since I was in second grade.) This means that our graduate students have a wealth of technical facts such as names and dates at their fingertips to give them an advantage. More importantly, our graduate students have absorbed a historical method that allows them to read and comprehend historical information. (In the interest of fairness, I happen to have a number of very smart students in my class; the sort of students that I might be tempted to try a seminar-style class with.)

I probably do not know much more about fifteenth-century Japan than my students do. Yet my background in European history allows me a way in so that I can read and comprehend an academic work on fifteenth-century Japan and walk away from reading it with the ability to say something intelligent on the topic in ways that my students would not be able to. I know something about governments built around religious authority. I understand saying that the political authority speaks for God and that all religious dissidents are political dissidents, traitors to be killed. I am not going to get caught up in "this is so intolerant." I have the model of feudalism and can appreciate the dynamics of such a hierarchal society to come to a daimyo system. I have chivalry to help me with bushido. (My European frame of reference and bias would be a problem when I get to a higher level. You get through college by using various models. Graduate school is about learning how these models are all wrong. Right now I am concerned with getting to the stage of learning that this is all wrong.) Furthermore, while I may not have the primary source material in front of me and certainly would not be able to read such material in the original, I know enough about how primary sources work to have a good guess as to how my book is handling it and what might be some alternatives. Thus I would be able to engage the book and ask the right sort of question. My students, facing the same task, would find themselves lost, bored shortly followed by their minds' closing down. They would need someone to guide them; someone like a teacher giving lectures.

There is another problem with this approach of bringing graduate school to my high school classroom. We were supposed to come to class in graduate school after having spent hours reading through articles and even entire books. We have a word for this in the English language, it is called homework. The same sort of homework that Kohn would have us believe is the cause of so much that is wrong with education. Our graduate students need homework in order to take part in a meaningful conversation; how much more so high school students who lack a basic background in the field to begin with.

Kohn has set a no-win situation for us teachers. He does not want us to hand out homework, because he believes that it kills an interest in learning. Early in the book he condescendingly tells us to give better lectures and we will have no need to assign homework. Sure I can stand up and just give out the information (which is what most of the students want). This would be a hierarchal situation where I, the adult teacher, feed the students like little children. For good reason, Kohn objects to such a situation and tells us to try including students in the process as active learners. Of course, this requires having students work things out without me. This also requires that the students have some sort of knowledge base to work from that is supposed to come from some magical place known only to Kohn. In the real world, we turn to homework to allow students to do these things. (I could turn my class into study hall but that would simply be homework done in school.)

The more I lecture the more my class becomes a hierarchy and the students passive learners. On the good side, I can assign less homework. The more homework I assign the more my students will have to do homework. On the good side, the more they can take an active role in class as equals instead of being passive learners. As with most teachers, I believe in trying to find some middle ground between the two. This makes me guilty, to at least some degree, of creating a hierarchal classroom and killing my students' natural love of learning. I guess Kohn would think that I am a truly horrible teacher.


Clarissa said...

As a teacher, I have no problem with establishing a strongly hierarchical classroom and assigning a lot of homework. And it works great for me. My students don't eat in the classroom, ask permission to get up, raise their hand before making a comment, and don't barge into my office without knocking even when the door is wide open. I never tell them to do all these things but they somehow feel that my teaching style reqires a lot of discipline on the part of us all.

Back at Yale, a group of graduate students proposed that the graduate students' work should not be graded. I was in complete disagreement with that. Grades offer an important way of giving feedback to the students. They also are a big motivating factor. As much as we want to pretend that everybody is motivated solely by their profound love of learning, that is not always the case even for the most dedicated of us.

I teach literature, so there has to be quite a bit of homework. I can't read the novels instead of the students. And telling them the plot in the lecture format is really not the same thing. So there is a lot of homework, which I think is a great thing because it offers a continuous intellectual environment between college and their homes.

So I agree with you that this no-homework, no-grades system of teaching is not very productive. I guess I'll join your club of horrible, oppressive teachers. :-)

R' Daniel said...

I think that if kids are interested in what the course material is, they will read on their own. There is no need for homework assignments if kids are participating (I am a professor, by the way). If you treat high school students like kids, than they will not aspire to maturity. I apply the kimu ve kiblu approach seen in Reb Chaim Hirschenson's works to education, as well as work on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. There is no reason why on the high school level, you can't have discussion-based classes. This works well for humanities courses and the teacher should be there to help direct the lecture at times when teetering on becoming inane and to answer questions when students are in doubt. Basing grades more on participation and the quality of that participation is far more meritorious and is a much better preparation for life than employing antiquated authoritarian models of pedagogy. Perhaps part of the problem is that individuals with no formal training in pedagogy teach without knowing how to teach. I teach from the persepctive of the Golden Rule- would I have wanted to be spoken down to and given loads of honmework to take away from other aspects of my life if I were a student? The asnwer is no. We need to bring the human element back into education.

Clarissa said...

The problem is that while some students are interested and will read on their own, others will not. This creates the classroom environment where the level of preparation for the class discussions is very unequal. Some students come well-prepared and can participate, while others have nothing to say and just sit there.

Even in my big lecture classes I have at least 20% of the final grade assigned for participation. If there is no homework, however, there are students who have no knowledge to inform their participation.

Izgad said...

R’ Daniel

I would see the Yeshiva system as a good example of what can go wrong without firm standards. My Yeshiva education lacked formal tests for Gemara, writing assignments and vocabulary quizzes and as a result I floated through Yeshiva and it was largely a waste of time for me. If Yeshivas are going to spend the sort of time they do on Gemara then they should have some sort of standard as to what they wish to accomplish. Students in eighth grade should be able to make their way through Gemara with Rashi with the help of a vocabulary sheet. Students in twelfth grade should be able to make their way through a Gemara, Rashi Tosfot with the aid of a dictionary and critically analyze it. Of course once we stick in standards we must have some means of evaluating students to keep everyone honest.

R' Daniel said...

You say that students should be able to do this and that. I wish every yid would know how to learn gemara, but the truth is that sadly, not all Jews have this desire. We shouldn't force anything on anybody who doesn't care to learn it. An example- Reb Aryeh Leib Malin, zt'l, was the rosh yeshiva of Beis HaTalmud. People wanted to know why sometimes for 6 days in a row he wouldn't give shiur. His response- he felt that the bochurim were not in the position to receive the Truth he was teaching them (at that time, the yeshiva was learning Bava Basra). The point is that in order to receive truth, whether Divine Truth or secular truth, one's heart and mind need to be properly oriented. I was a yeshiva rebbe 25 years ago and am now a medical school professor, and I see this all the time, even with those who are the creme de la creme of American academia, and whn I feel that people don't want to learn, it is their prerogative once it comes to grading time and they fail their exams.

Izgad said...

R’ Daniel

If it was simply a matter of motivation, we could forget about school and have kids open up a Gemara at home. As a student I certainly needed guidelines as to what I should be working toward. Without them I just sunk into needing to be making some pretense into learning. Part of the problem is that rebbaim teaching Gemara have never been in a position of having to justify teaching Gemara. Gemara is simply taken for granted as a good in of itself. Contrast teaching Jewish history. I have to justify not just my course, but what I teach every day.