Sunday, November 8, 2009

The noble lie I tell myself

Boy, there's not a better article to get you thinking about the instructor-student relationship than this piece by Gary Lewandowski and David Stromhetz. When students don't learn, how quick are we to decide that they're the problem? The authors:

Was it your teaching? Impossible, of course. You are a conscientious teacher who worked diligently on your lectures. You tracked down recent references, created examples, embedded discussion questions, made several rounds of revisions, and followed tips for creating proper PowerPoints. But the students still did poorly, and will surely blame you and exact revenge on your teaching evaluations. The only viable explanation for the students’ poor performance is that the students are to blame. It’s not you, it’s them! (Or so you think.)

Teachers want students to learn, and when students fail to meet that goal, someone must bear the responsibility. The kids aren’t all right – they’re the problem. At one time or another, it is easy to feel as though students are not holding up their end of the teacher-student "relationship."

But just as students tend to take all the credit when things go well and blame us when things go wrong, aren't we Pollyannas too - patting ourselves on the back when students learn but pinning all the responsibility on them when learning doesn't happen? Lewandowski and Stromhetz:
Teachers are all familiar with the notion that when students do well in our courses, they take the credit as the smart and capable students that they are. However, when students do poorly the teacher often bears the blame. Students have "earned" every A, but have been "given" every B, C, D, or F by their less than stellar teachers.

However, professors are not immune from adopting a similar self-serving bias. When a specific class, an entire course, or an entire semester of teaching evaluations go well, we simply re-affirm our teaching prowess. But when evaluations are less than complimentary, there must be another explanation. Most commonly we attribute poor teaching outcomes to the occupants of the desks in our classroom. Yet, if you asked students why some of their courses are less fulfilling, less educational, and less enjoyable, students would likely suggest that the instructor is to blame. Certainly both perspectives have a kernel of truth.

They also remind us of some reasons to be humble and not so ready to lay the responsibility solely on students. First, we probably compare them to ourselves, and maybe, just maybe, we had bad study habits and attitudes when we were students. And second (as I like to remind myself), we instructors are freaks. We had the ability to excel in our disciplines, despite (in all likelihood) not always being the beneficiaries of quality teaching. Beyond this, we still must teach. We still must educate. And there's the serious danger that placing so much blame on students ultimately serves them badly.

Given that we may be unable to effect wholesale, lasting changes in the inherent natures of our students, we as teachers can adapt and better meet our teaching goals. As they say, the first step is acknowledging that we contribute to the problem. By focusing on student deficiencies, you may inadvertently perpetuate the problem. Case in point, by developing a mindset that students have significant deficiencies, you may become more prone to developing a confirmatory bias that leads you to more easily identify and remember students’ deficiencies. Worse, negative expectations about students might lead you to act in a way (perhaps unknowingly) that elicits negative behaviors from students.

For example, if you became convinced that your class was unenthusiastic, you might devote less effort to your next lecture because quite frankly "why bother? They aren’t interested anyway." Thus, your next lecture is subsequently less engaging, and the students are, as you predicted, unenthusiastic. By identifying and resisting this self-defeating pattern, you can take steps to avoid it. After all, you are the person with the most influence on the classroom and have the most ability to produce the desired change.

These words remind me of what I like to call (following Plato) my noble lie. The unpleasant fact of the matter is that educators (especially at the university level) are dealing with students who, intellectually at least, are pretty close to a finished product. They are already heavily acculturated, academically and otherwise, and the influences of genetics and their family environments are nearly fully manifest. One need not be a determinist to think that our ability to fundamentally transform the learning habits and orientations of our students is extremely limited. Yes, some students 'find themselves' in college. Yes, some students will be diamonds in the rough whose talents just needed the right environment or the right teacher. But overwhelmingly (and I'm under the impression that data support this), the best students entering college are the best when they leave, the average are average, and those who struggled before college continued to struggle during college. This doesn't mean students don't learn during their college years. It simply means that those most learners do not experience dramatic shifts in their learning capacities.

But this is a truth, if I were to accept it, that would defeat my very aims as an educator. Again borrowing from Plato, one cannot teach what cannot be learned. And so any hope of truly teaching my students depends on my assuming, even against substantial evidence, that students can learn and grow in their ability to learn.

So what is my noble lie? It's more of a hyperbolic conceit. But put simply: Each and every student I teach can, with reasonable effort, master what I aim to help them learn. Is it true? Probably not. Teaching, they say, is an act of faith. My noble lie expresses that faith.

(How many of my fellow instructors are noble liars too?)


  1. This is an excellent post but by your assessment I am an anomaly. I was a poor student in high school, an average student at the junior college lever, a good student at the university level and now I am writing chapter one of my dissertation. I've improved at every level of education since high school. Though I happen to be writing on Plato, my experience suggests Aristotle is right on this one: people have to be ready to understand before they are going to learn from it. Some people entering higher education are just not mature enough or ready really to learn. It took me a long time to be at that level and I am thankful I kept with it. Of course I don't really know what makes someone ready to begin learning but if they aren't ready to learn there is little to be done. Then again the Platonist in me thinks we can at least turn them towards the joy of studying or the fire so they can, if they wish, deny it. I suppose this is the best we can do sometimes, engage them so they see the value of learning. My best teachers were engaging, they made me want to learn more.

  2. I'm a bit confused by what you're saying about the potential for change in students:
    "But overwhelmingly...the best students entering college are the best when they leave...and those who struggled before college continued to struggle during college. This...means that most learners do not experience dramatic shifts in their learning capacities."

    The logic doesn't seem to hold up. There is no major change in relative academic abilities, but everyone's ability improves. How much by is a separate issue, which your data doesn't address.

    I also think in focusing on this idea of "fundamentally transform[ing] the learning habits and orientations of our students" and "diamonds in the rough" is a) wrong and b) unhelpful. (I made this point to Chris Panza a few months back.) It's unhelpful because most people, student or otherwise, are pretty resistant to being fundamentally transformed. Most of us are quite content to be who we are. If you come along and state at the beginning of a course that your aim is to fundamentally transform me, I'm going to approach you and your course with a high level of suspicion. It's wrong because people don't really need to "be transformed". I certainly don't think it's the job of university lecturers. Expose us to new ideas; open doors so that we can transform ourselves; provide guidance and support. That's the role of university lecturers in transformations. But as you say, not everyone transforms. The majority simply improve, and a professor should be happy to guide and facilitate improvement as well. Incremental improvement is not a lesser goal. It's the most important part of what a teacher does.


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