/ education

Education and discipline

To the growth of the [student] all studies are subservient; they are instruments valued as they serve the needs of growth. Personality, character, is more than subject-matter.
-John Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum

David Gooblar at Chronicle Vitae published a piece this week, "They Haven't Done the Reading. Again." It a piece filled with good ideas about how to ensure students engage material in a class without resorting to punitive quizzes that make up a large portion of the final grade.

This piece, however, really turned me off. I couldn't even engage his practical ideas, because I was so put off by Gooblar's attitude toward his students. I expressed my displeasure (rather strongly) on Twitter, and several of my friends and colleagues had a hard time seeing why I had such a negative reaction to this piece.

I've been thinking about my reaction, and its source, ever since.

It starts with the context in which I saw Gooblar's piece—a tweet from Jesse Stommel:

In the article Jesse links to, he argues:

As a teacher, I try to encourage students to be honest about how much they read, what that reading looks like, when they stop reading, when they start again, etc. Most importantly, I ask why. It’s often as interesting to know why we put a book down, as it is to know why we pick one up—to examine our looking away and to examine our compulsion to avoid thinking about or theorizing that looking away. I don’t actively discourage students from reading, but I also do not police their reading. If they’re having trouble, I talk to them about reading strategies (which often involve skimming or thoughtful skipping). I never assume students aren’t reading because of laziness. I always assume their reasons are as complex as my own. And I never work to fill the gaps of their not reading with shame. Like teaching and learning, reading cannot be compulsory.

Also framing my reading of Gooblar's post is a blog post published by Sean Michael Morris the previous day, in which he writes...

If you can't trust students, you shouldn't be teaching.

I had just printed out that quote and taped it on my office wall above my desk.

So when I saw Gooblar's exasperated title, and then the following passage early in his post, I was primed to be incensed.

Students, because they have what seems to them to be an enormous amount of responsibilities—multiple courses, a budding social life, the apparent need to sleep upwards of 12 hours a night—are pre-eminent prioritizers.

This flippant, sarcastic dismissal of his students and their ability to act responsibly really made me angry. It smacks of arrogance—surely the professor's priorities for the students ought to be the students' priorities—and insensitivity—assuming that all students who don't obey the professor do so out of a personal deficiency. If I were one of his students, I would be enraged, and I would feel disrespected at the very least.

Now, Gooblar back-pedals from polemic and quickly moves into practical recommendations that, as one friend put it, are quite "Kris-like." He calls on instructors to ensure that assignments are actually important, speaks against punitive assessments, etc. And he does offer helpful advice for something that is a real practical problem. After all, not every student who comes to college comes fully ready for self-directed learning in an environment of purely intrinsic motivation. This is something that must be awakened, fostered, trained in many of them—and in the meantime, we might need to use some extrinsic motivations as we "meet them where they are" in order to help them transcend that mindset. In fact, that's exactly what I (try to) do in most of my courses.

But still, this article really bothered me.

Jesse put it well when he tweeted,

The more I think about it, the more Gooblar's attitude towards his students bothers me. He views them as a "problem to be solved"—a matter of discipline. That is what I was reacting to.

There's one more big piece to the context in which I read Gooblar's post. Motivated by Adam Heidebrink, I'm about halfway through reading John Dewey's The Child and the Curriculum. I was looking through the notes I've taken so far while reading, and I found a passage that perfectly illustrates my issues with Gooblar's attitude. (Dewey writes about the education of the child, but I think we can easily substitute "student" of any age for most of the occurences of "child" in his book, and the insights will apply just as directly.)

The fundamental factors in the educative process are an immature, underdeveloped being; and certain social aims, meanings, values incarnate of the matured experience of the adult. The educative process is the due interaction of these forces. Such a conception of each in relation to the other[,] as facilitates completest and freest interaction[,] is the essence of educational theory.

In other words, education is about the free, purposive interaction of the not-yet-fully-developed intellectual/artistic/social capacity of the student on the one hand, and the maturity of intellect/artistry/social interaction that we hope to foster in our students on the other. (Ideally, the instructor would represent this maturity—but only in part, and only as one of a diversity of possibilities.)

Dewey continues:

But here comes the effort of thought. It is easier to see the conditions [immaturity and maturity] in their separateness, to insist upon one at the expense of the other, to make antagonists of them, than to discover a reality to which each belongs. The easy thing is to seize upon something in the nature of the child, or upon something in the developed consciousness of the adult, and insist upon that as the key to the whole problem. . . . Instead of seeing the educative steadily and as a whole, we see conflicting terms. We get the case of the child [the student] vs. the curriculum; of the individual nature vs. social culture.

This, I think, gets at the rub of Jesse's tweet. We often view students' non-compliance or inability to succeed in the way we would like as an expression of a deficiency in the student: a problem to be fixed. However, Dewey argues (and does so in more detail elsewhere in this book) that even when undesirable behavior or results are the result of a student's immaturity, the educator needs to see that immaturity as a natural, expected part of a real and normal development of an actual person. In the case of young students, it is normal, and indeed right, for a child to view the world in terms of their social relationships rather than as a series of discrete subjects to be mastered, and to prioritize those social relationships over the "world out there." That adolescents and adults do this too should surprise no one—and I for one do not think we should be too quick to try to drill this social orientation out of people in favor of a formal, hierarchical, taxonomical representation of knowledge. (But that's a different discussion!)

The bottom line is this: when student behavior, skill, or progress is out of line with the educator's goals or expectations, Dewey argues that the educator must start from an understanding that there are real and valid reasons for that difference. Even when the immediate cause is a lack of work-ethic (or a prioritizing of sleeping "upwards of 12 hours a night"), there is a cause that is very real to the student—more real than the content of our courses or our disciplines. And instead of pitting our expectations against their current mindset, we should realize that part of our role as educators is to help students develop that new mindset, to help them mature intellectually, artistically, critically, socially.

If we want to foster critical thinking and intellectual maturity, we must do more than cram content and reward/punish behavior. As Maria Montessori argues, discipline is not silence and immobility (in other words, compliance) before the teacher; discipline is the ability to exercise self-control when active. We mustn't confuse compliance with maturity, right answers with critique. If we want to foster mature, critical agency in our students, it is important that we start from a position of respect and understanding, and we must be intentional about the ways we help our students grow into maturity as critical agents.

(Disclaimer: by making these arguments, I'm not meaning to imply that I have this down. Both as a teacher and as a parent, I'm still working on moving beyond a focus on content and behavior in order to foster growth towards intellectual and social maturity. By writing this, I simply hope to open up more of a discussion on how we can focus more on "the growth of the [student] . . . more than subject-matter.")