Thursday, October 6, 2011

Let Us Not Shoot The Messenger

It is time for my bi-annual rant.  As readers familiar with this blog know, about this time each semester I have a mental meltdown – my first student critical papers and/or exams have been completed and I have finished grading them.  The students do a miserable job.  This semester is no different, but this time I do not want to belabor what I have said in the past, or maybe belabor it in a different light .  I maintain, based on my observations and confirmed by many of my colleagues, that the ability of students is decreasing by the semester – it used to be by the year - but I have noticed that the students I have this semester are not as capable, as a group, as those I had last year.  I was discussing this with some colleagues who agreed that this was their experience also and a couple of them suggested that maybe they, the students were just lazy or too busy.  I thought about this and I have come to this conclusion, not original, but I think important: the students are giving us a message and that message is that the educational system is enabling failure.  So, we should not shoot the 'messenger.' So, aka Marx, if we want to change our students then we need to change the system. Let me try to outline an explanation (I am thinking of working this up into a larger project)

There are only two reasons why people fail, the either can’t do it or they won’t do it.  The former is an educational/training problem; the second is a motivation/discipline problem.  I do not think that students fail because they are too lazy or busy, I think that the reasons are associated with, but not limited too, the following and that they are systemic in nature::
1) Not knowing how to study.  They do not know how to read for comprehension, outline material, and/or take notes. They do not know how to study for exams, even if we give them review questions. 
2) Not knowing how to manage time.  Supposedly we tell students to spend 2-3 hours on the material outside of class for every hour they are in-class.  If a student is taking only four 3 credit courses that would mean, at a minimum, 36 hours of work.  That means that they are ‘working’ full time, but they treat their education as if it can be fit into another full-time schedule. 
3) Having unrealistic expectations regarding what is expected of them at the college level.  ‘My teachers did not expect much from me in HS so they will not in college.’  ‘I can get by with a minimum effort – a D equals a degree.’ ‘I could turn in work late and still get credit and if it was done poorly I could get a ‘do-over.’
4) Not knowing the basics of how to write a sentence/paragraph.  Enough said about that elsewhere.
5) Thinking that because they paid for the course that they will pass the course.  I have had students tell me that they deserve a good grade for simply taking the course and showing up on a regular basis and that papers/exams should not count that much towards a grade.

I tell my students that I spent thirty-five years in business and that the economic world is not a forgiving one.  I did not start teaching until I was 40 and had twenty years ‘real-world’ experience under my belt.  I have downsized organizations and been downsized.  I have hired and fired people and been hired and fired myself.  Been there, done that.  I tell them that as their teacher, I am not their friend, their counselor, or their 'spiritual' adviser.  My job is not to make them feel good about themselves (I may look like Santa Claus, but I am not
J.  If they want a hug – get a teddy bear.  If they want someone to love them – get a dog.)  I tell them that my job is to challenge them to push themselves beyond their comfort level and to learn to think critically and to explore possibilities.  I tell them that they may end up, at times, hating my guts, but that is OK – they will survive.  My job is to help them to develop into people who can be successful at living and meeting the challenges outside the ‘safety’ of the academic world.  Doing this constructively well result in them learning to value themselves without relying on others (peers and 'authorities') to give them a sense of self or purpose.  Autonomy is the goal, but it should also be part of the journey.  

But, starting this process in college is far to late.  We need to start in grade school.  What ever happened to 'philosophy for children?'


  1. I've been teaching Critical Thinking for a couple of years now. I am thinking about making the entire course focus on the skill of argument diagraming. And I think that this may be the key to getting students up to par regarding the issues you've mentioned.

    The first time I taught the critical thinking course, I assumed (as did the textbook I was using) that argument diagramming was something anyone who knows how to read could figure out in a week with some guidance, and I treated the topic accordingly. But during the course of that semester, and in the ones following, I discovered that, while it's not accurate to say they don't know how to read, nevertheless, they don't have the first clue how to read something with a sensitivity towards its _logical structure_. The sad thing is, they think they _do_ know this. They believe they know what a conclusion is, for instance--but invariably in my first class meeting I am able to show them that (with a maximum of one or maybe two exceptions per class) they literally have no idea what a conclusion is. This is not even to mention premises, subconclusions, etc.

    This isn't just a problem for their ability to do philosophy or academic work in general. I'm convinced an inability to recognize the rational structure of texts (written or spoken) hobbles the possibility of their development as participants in their various cultures, and in society at large.

    So argument diagramming is taking up more of my course each time I teach it. I feel like if I can start with students who are, in a sense, illiterate, and get them to where they can read a few paragraphs of closely argued text and accurately diagram out how its various parts are supposed to be attempting to imply each other and so on, then I've done my students a serious service.

    That was a long intro, I know, but it's leading to this: I wonder if this inability to read for logical structure is part of what's causing your own classroom troubles as well. If they can't do this, then they naturally won't be able to read for comprehension and take good notes etc.

    What do you think might happen if you gave them some short texts and asked them to diagram them out. (Or at least, identify the conclusion, some premises and subconclusions, and so on.) Even with passages of just two "thoughts" each, you may be surprised at how poorly they do. Three "thoughts" or more? Let's just say that you may discover the source of your trouble at that point...

    It's a bit single-minded of me, but I'm starting to think that this skill needs to be explicitly addressed (whether through diagramming or through some other means) at the late elementary school level. By seventh grade no one should be reading a text attempting to persuade them of a point of view without understanding the significance of conclusion indicators and premise indicators, the place of words like "moreover" and "though" and so on in the rational structure of the argument.

    (And if your students are taking a "critical thinking" course before they're taking your own philosophy courses and they're unable to do this--it may be an opportunity for a friendly chat with the critical thinking instructor! Hard to see how that would go without raising some hackles, though, I know.)

  2. As an example of what I mean by showing in the first week that they don't know what a conclusion is, I give them a sentence like this:

    "You ought to clean your room because I am your father,"

    And I ask them what the conclusion is. It's not the _absolute_ easiest example in the world, but it's pretty close. And reliably, everyone but two or three students will say that "I am your father" is the conclusion. Someone who knows what a conclusion is will not consistently make mistakes like this--but freshman college students where I teach apparently make this kind of mistake practically every time.

  3. Anon: Thanks for your comments. I do have them read short works and papers throughout the course. We start with The Allegory of the Cave and then Euthyphro. By the time they write their 1st critical paper we have discussed and analyzed the basic arguments of the The Allegory of the Cave, Euthyphro, Crito, and the Apology. They have written weekly 1-2 page response papers dealing with an argument that is made in that week's reading assignment. We use those papers as the basis for class discussion. We have gone over the basic forms of valid deductive arguments.

    But for some reason when I give them the assignment to construct an argument for a specified conclusion (this year it was 'we should examine our lives')using one of the forms for a valid argument and then defend the premises using ideas from Socrates/Plato, all within a 1000 words max., they can not(or will not)do it. Even though we have discussed this particular argument in class, and have put arguments on the board, they fail to do what is assigned. They fail to construct an argument(F), or they fail to defend the premises using ideas from Socrates/Plato(F)- the Bible was not written by Plato, nor any of the books therein. What Zen has to do with Plato I have yet to figure out.

    It seems that they need to fail - to realize that I will fail them - before they get the motivation to do what is assigned. To be honest, by the time they write their 2nd critical paper the majority will be in the B range(or they will have dropped the course).

  4. John,

    Thank goodness for this post. Your biannual rant was later than usual, I think, so I was worried!

    More seriously: All the problems you identify are real. The question is what to do about them. The one thing I love is your unwillingness to be disliked by your students, even an object of resentment. That's an important part of 'pushback' against low standards, etc. The main challenge here is how to convey the 'toughlove' message you advocate without totally alienating a large number of students. As you note, it's not our job to make students feel good about themselves. But it's also not our job to make themselves feel bad about themselves either. And students who do feel bad about themselves probably won't be productive learners and will assume that they can't learn rather than adapting their efforts and expectations to our higher standards.

    Your post also reminds me of (to me) the hardest part of education: how to be both evaluator/taskmaster on the one hand, as well as partner/facilitator/midwife of learning on the other. I love the latter role, dislike the former, and wish it were easier to reconcile the two.

  5. Yay for the annual rant!

    I will second Michael's comment that all of these problems you identify are real and frustrating. Whether they are getting worse is I think neither here nor there. The state of K - 12 education in the U.S. is so horrific that talk of better or worse is a kind of category mistake.

    You mention this in your post but it bears repeating: these students did not develop these habits in a vacuum. These are humans who once had curiosity, motivation, hopes and a sense of promise. By age eighteen our culture has managed to educate these habits right out of them. These students are victims of a cruel and damaging system. It is important for me as a teacher to remember this on a consistent basis. I'm just as frustrated as you, but I want to be sure to direct my frustration where it really ought to go.

    One way of approaching this issue collectively rather than putting all the pressure on you, the teacher, or on them, the students, is to have a long, honest conversation about expectations.

    It sounds like you already do this in a very literal sense. You say, I expect you to do X in the paper or do X on the test, then you get all these papers and tests back where the one thing you asked specifically for is completely absent.

    I'm talking about doing this is a more loose fashion - one that allows both you and the students to be honest. It may be that a bunch of your students will say that if you ask them to do something that requires them to work in a way that is new, difficult, or time-consuming, they simply won't do it. It might be useful to find out why. It might be useful to find out what they expect when they know that they won't be doing the one thing you asked them to do on the test and on the paper. They might say that they fully expect a C or lower in that case.

    In the best of all possible worlds this discussion might give both you and the students real insight about what keeps them from fully investing in their own education. You might be able to work together to make things a little bit better (set reasonable expectations). You might be able to work together to craft compromises (e.g., shorter assignments that repeat skills already practiced regularly in class that are assessed by very narrow criteria).

    It's not an easy conversation to have though. In order to do it fruitfully, you have to leave your (very justified) frustration and anger behind and approach the whole thing with simple curiosity.

  6. Very thought-provoking post and comments! I just wanted to say, regarding the last line of the post, that philosophy for children (P4C) is still alive and well; the problem is that getting it into schools is a very long and difficult process. There are isolated schools here and there that are lucky enough to be located where there is a P4C philosopher nearby who is dedicated to working past all the obstacles and finding a way to work with teachers (some of whom are very eager to do this work in schools). Some, such as Tom Wartenberg, train undergraduate students to run P4C sessions with kids in schools. Other places, such as the Montclair State University Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, have comprehensive training programs for those who wish to be practitioners of P4C, including teachers. It's going slowly, but there are a lot of people who are very enthusiastic and willing to put in the work.

    One big problem is that dedicating yourself to this field as a philosopher gets you little to no academic credit in most departments. It's considered a career killer. Yet I do think it's good to have trained philosophers involved in developing P4C programs. Note that P4C, especially in younger grades, is not focused on philosophical texts, but on a critical and discussion-based approach to stories and issues, where each student is encouraged to express their own views, and to respond to those of others. The idea, in part, is to develop students' independent thinking and reasoning abilities early on, starting even in kindergarten.

    Anyone who's interested in investigating further could look at Tom Wartenberg's page on P4C, *Teaching Children Philosophy,* or the Montclair State U Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, or the Northwest Centre for Philosophy for Children (which has some great links under "Resources"). There is now even a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Philosophy for Children! Surely a sign that it's coming more to the fore...


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