About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dumbing down in the World? Defining "smart"

Let me start with a question to reflect on. Make sure you think of this before you read on. Think of the teacher that had the greatest impact on your learning throughout your life. How did they influence you? What did they do to influence your learning? What characteristics did they have?

Now read on.

I recently had a conversation with my adviser about "good teachers." He begins his introduction to teaching course asking his students to reflect on these questions. This conversation came back as I read a post by Ken Allen on "Is the world dumbing down?".

In the post, he has a clip of Branford Marsailis who speaks about what he has learned from his students. Basically, he says he has not learned anything, as his students just want to be told they are good, and don't want to work hard to learn. My adviser also mentioned how one of his students felt that much of teaching education focuses on the "touchy-feely stuff" and not on the learning outcomes.

This got me to thinking about which teachers had influenced me the most. There were four teachers who had the greatest impact on my learning. One thing that they had in common was they challenged me, but always let me know that they had confidence that I would meet any challenge.

Miss Relation was my reading and 3rd grade teacher. I can still remember when she was so impressed with how well I did with multiple digit multiplication and complex math concepts (such as sets). As I learned to read, she would always re-enforce it with, "I knew you could do it. See?" But she would never take, "I can't" as an excuse. She was in it with me, guiding me, having confidence that I could do it.

Miss McDonough was one of the toughest teachers I had (5th grade), but when I accomplished something, she would let me know how proud she was that I stuck with it and was able to master it. At no time would she give up on any student. You would achieve her high standards or she (and possibly you) would die trying. Her utter confidence in every student (I never heard her say a negative thing about a student...they weren't smart, they were lazy, what were they thinking?) made you want to show her you could do it.

My middle school math teacher was the first to let me know that I was really good in math...during a time when women were not expected to be good in math. Everything that we did, he would point out the good job I did. This confidence in me, made me confident in myself and I excelled in math as a result.

Finally, one of my professors in graduate school, allowed us to co-create our own curriculum. I loved this class as the students found the readings, presented the content, but were guided by very insightful questions from the professor. He treated us (master and Ph.d students) as knowledgeable students that he could learn from. Some of his questions would make you stop and think (and sweat if you weren't prepared). He was very low key and respectful of the students, which made you want to do the best you could. I still remember many of the discussions we had in the class, and the project I worked on (tariffs and counter-tariffs for the Steel Industry).

Another trait that all of these teachers had was that they knew ME and what I needed to learn. They did not use a cookie cutter approach to teaching and took time out to know what I knew and how I thought. They then used this to help me learn better.

What I learned from poor teachers

Likewise, the teachers that I look on with humiliation and anger, even to this day, taught me what a good teacher does not do.

As I mentioned in my comment to Ken:

"Dumbing down" is in the eyes of the beholder though. What is important is that in the US at any rate, we have begun to classified "smart" or "knowledgeable" as being able to take standardized tests about basic facts (i.e. math formulas, defining terms, and writing in a standard format regardless of audience or purpose). We have also relegated anything outside of math, science, and technology as "fluff" and not real knowledge.

The teachers that impeded by learning only looked at the standards and never bothered to look at what I actually knew. They also had a very narrow view of what "learning" and "knwoledge" was, then labeled those outside of those norms as "not quite smart". I can remember being moved from the "smart" reading group to the "slow" reading group in 1st grade. The major problem was that the teacher taught reading in one way only, and those that did not learn that way were then labeled "slow". It was humiliating for me and I lost all confidence in my studies. She always made it know who the "good" students were and who the "bad" students were.

These teachers also tended to have only the curriculum and book learning, with no abstract or creative activities in the classroom. Students did what the teacher wanted them to do ONLY or else you were a poor student. I remember a home economics teacher telling me how disappointed she was in my cooking class because I didn't follow the recipe exactly. My classmates all liked my changes (for the most part, sometimes they ended in disaster though), but I did not "follow directions."

Finally, the most difficult teachers that really turned me off to learning were those that seemed to exert their power over me as a student. They always had a way of making sure I knew they were in control and knew more than I did, so I should not ask questions of them or interrupt their class flow. In fact, years later, I realized that they did not like me to ask questions because they probably did not know how to answer them.

Dumbing down the World? Or a new way to assess learning?

In some ways, I do think that we are "dumbing down" in the world. But not in the traditional sense. I don't think that a grade these days is complex enough to assess a student's learning. I don't think that many of the teachers from which I learned the most (I still can remember many of the lessons 30-45 years later) would be able to keep up with the "testing". In fact, some of my daughter's teachers that had the qualities I look for in a good teacher were considered "poor" by some parents because their students enjoyed school and the kids did not have enough homework at night! (Even though their students tested high on standardized tests).

The new educational reforms in the US still focus on these simplistic quantitative tests and pitting teachers against students and parents. I have just read about community schools, however, which I hope with create a new educational environment that is based less on numbers and more on learning.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

You have the advocacy for your students that every good teacher has. You want them to do well, and don't we all think that in teaching?

But I also feel that you are judging how students today might feel by the way you felt, as a student and at a different point in time in the development of society. I too had experiences similar to yours as a learner - way back last century!

The shift that Marsalis alludes to is not so much one of teacher attitude, but of student attitude and possibly societal attitude. You said it in part in your comment on my post, that students ask about how they will be graded - this is what Marsalis talks of.

I have found that even high achieving students are focused on their achievement grades first, almost before considering what they must do to bring about that achievement through learning.

I also believe that, in a complex way, this has been brought on us by society. I feel that the culture within society now places an emphasis on grading and everyone achieving highly, instead of an emphasis on the learning that could bring about that achievement.

Catchya later

payton said...

People have always wanted to be praised for how well they do something. We need to praise the process - hard work, practice, effort. The rating that comes in the end, grades, should be used to show where the learner is at that time. Motivation comes from not fearing failure - whatever that means to the people involved, but the willingness to try something new and difficult. The best learning experiences occur when everyone involved learns something.

V Yonkers said...

Payton, I was thinking the same thing about the "fear of failure". Teachers that hold students to a high level and yet LET them fail, then support them to overcome that failure.

Ken, I didn't answer back immediately because I wanted to ask a few people (my kids and my students) about their favorite teacher. One thing that I think is different from our generation is the number of them that said that the teacher made learning "fun". I don't think that was ever a condition for my peers of a good teacher (although it did make it easier to learn). Overwhelmingly, however, was how many said that the teacher challenged them and they were able to succeed. Often they were the toughest teachers. I was surprised that my daughter identified one of the teachers who had a sharp tongue and could really be sarcastic and cutting as one of the best teachers she had. Why, because she set a high standard and EXPECTED a student to achieve it, motivating them to keep trying until they succeeded. She never gave up on them (and though my daughter didn't say it, she made it safe for them to fail and then supported them in achieve them).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

Thanks for the feedback and I agree. I too found some of my best teachers were the strictest.

@Payton - I think we're discussing different things here. Praise (and giving it) is quite a different matter, and as you correctly pointed out, if praise is to be appropriate, it should be given after grading.

But what I am talking about are learners who are more concerned about their grading before any attempt has been made on their part at studying to achieve, so that a desired grade can be met. At the point I refer to here, praise for learning and achieving is simply not appropriate.

Catchya later