Today is the first for my Winter semester class, and I’m excited. I like teaching, but for some reason the beginning of the semester is the best part. I’m interested to see who will be in the class. The topic, the philosophy of food, is one I’ve not taught before, so I’m interested to see how things go. Will I be able to keep a discussion going? Will students work together outside of class? Will they find material on their own and contribute it to our discussion? Will the texts I’ve chosen hold our interest? Will student interest in the topic stay high after the initial week or so? Will I be able to make the transition from the philosophy of the ordinary to the philosophy of food? Mostly, however, I’m interested to see whether a small experiment will work.
I’ve never been very impressed with a lot of educational fads. “Learning outcomes” is a new reworking of a fad that just keeps returning from the dead, but like many other fads in education, I think it often mistakes education with the transfer of information. Another current fad is learning-centered teaching. I have a difficult time imagining what teaching is if it doesn’t have learning as its result, so I think the name is mostly a public relations game: rename the thing and perhaps people will take renewed interest in itâ€”not just Tide, but new and improved Tide, even if the only thing different is the box. Nevertheless, in spite of my jaundice, there is something in the learning-centered teaching movement that I like and that I think may be genuinely new: explicitly looking for ways to get students to take responsibility for their learning.
Ideally the teacher is a guide who helps students learn, but that ideal is seldom met. Most of the time teachers decide the course, set relatively arbitrary criteria, and evaluate the students by giving them grades according to the criteria. At least as it has worked itself out historically, that way of teaching has produced a system in which students play a game called “getting good grades,” and teachers play the game of using grades to sort students into piles. And in the end, university education amounts to little more than an extended and only marginally accurate IQ test. Almost everyone knows the rules of the grade game. I know them so well that, within a few days after class starts, I can tell which students are most likely to “win.” If I could get people to bet on student grades, I could make a good living as a bookie. The problem is that when we are playing the grade game, learning becomes something that happens “on the side” rather than at the center of class, since getting good grades and sorting students out is at the center.
In the past, I’ve tried to find ways away from the game and toward learning, with only qualified success. For example, in my beginning philosophical writing classes, and sometimes in other classes, the final assignment is to use the feedback from papers through the semester and any other relevant evidence to argue for the semester’s grade. If I am convinced, the student gets the grade he or she argued for. If not, I average the grades over the semester, including the grade on the final assignment. Of course, it is difficult for students to believe a teacher isn’t scamming them if he tries to avoid the game. They’ve spent at least twelve years in a system where grades are often the only game, and they continue to be the only game in most of their classes. It is reasonable for them to believe that this teacher is also playing that game, regardless of what he says to them (or even to himself). So, my experiments haven’t really gotten very far.
I dream of teaching a class in which students come, decide what project or paper relevant to the course they want to concentrate on, and use the class to help them learn enough to complete their project or paper. (Some graduate seminars begin to do that, but even in them the grade game takes an undue amount of class time.) So, in pursuit of my dream, I’ve tried to set class up this semester so that something like that can happen. Of course, I’m waiting to see. I’m keeping my fingers crossedâ€”and I suspect that I may have to revise the curriculum more than once between now and the end of the semester.
Wish me luck.