Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu, 21 Feb 2002 12:18:02 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: On Teaching, I

The pre-dawn morning today was damp, foggy, and muggy as the remnants of yesterday's rain hung around in the air. It was peacefully and meditatively still. Still thinking a lot because lots of stuff that has been converging the last few weeks. First, were my reflections on learning and motivation. Second, my always successful resistance this week to the University's requirement to post mid-term "progress grades." Mixed in with them were, the rock-'em-sock-'em student initiated "Tidbit" discussions on racism and feminism and flag-burning. And, to top it all off, the students worked on and presented their Salvador Dali and Dr. Seuss projects.

For both projects, the classroom was hoping! Chairs strewn about; students hunched over easel paper or poster board, spread out on the floor; student lying about in the hallway, a serious pose on some faces; laughter on others; color markers, sparkles, string, cotton balls, and god knows what else scattered on the floor; communities outside in the hall. Textbook pages are being flipped, sentences being read, paragraphs being discussed, fingers being pointed to words. The scene was a collage of excitement, enthusiasm, creativity and imagination, movement, and noise. All this poured over into the Library, on the quad, into the Union, into dorm rooms and apartments. To the munching of doughnuts and cookies and popcorn, they presented the projects. Gosh I wish you could have seen all that. If these were the Olympics, each and every community in all four classes--all forty-nine of them--would get gold! They got me so excited, I even wrote them an open evaluation in the form of a Dr. Seuss rhyme.

As one student said in his evaluation of the "Dr Seuss Project," "It was just like the Dali Project. From what our community did and what I saw other communities do, most of us have been in and out of the textbook and over and under the material like earthworms turning bland stuff into a rich nourishing compost heap. Boy, it looks like most of us have surprised ourselves. I really can't wait to see us sing for the Bruce Springstein Project and make a sculpture for the Rodin Project."

And, in this delightful confluence, I am asking myself "why is what is going on going on?" I have gut feelings; I'm struggling to translate them into words. The students, in their evaluations of each other and the project offered me clue words and phrases among which were: "trusted us," "had freedom," "respected us," "had to decide on our own," "exciting," "interesting," "safe to try something different."

You know, so many of us are so quick to ask two questions about a teaching method or technique: "Does it work?" and "How do you grade it?" In asking those questions, we spread the pernicious rumor that if something, the lecture or discussion or project or experiment goes the way we want, and the students' grades are good, however we twist and curl and and turn and curve and weigh them, the students have learned. I once thought there was such a tight, direct connection of the elements in that progression. Then, about a decade ago I started wondering if that was true. Now, I don't anymore, for I don't see the connection.

For the past decade I have been asking with increasing frequency some questions of myself and colleagues. Recently, they have been slamming me between the eyes:

        Do we really believe students can be trusted to learn?  
        Do we really engage in a control system whose motto
                is, "If we didn't, the student wouldn't."  
        Do we really allow students to decide, become involved, and get
        Do we really give students responsibility to decide, to be
                involved, to question, to think?
        Is grading really what education is about and is education really
                about grading?
        Do we really believe that lecture is teaching?
        Do we really believe that note-taking, test cramming, paper
                writing, and test taking are what learning is all about?
        Do we really believe that the student really learns what is
        Is what we cover really learned.
        Are we only intellectual and information masons building a wall,
                of knowledge, content brick by content brick by content
                brick by content brick?
        How do creative and imaginative people come from passive learners?
        How do problem perceivers emerge from solvers of our problems?
        How do manipulated classroom objects come out of the academic
                cocoon as respected and respectful individuals?
        How do students trained to converge emerge with the courage to
        How does imposed PC encourage diversity of thought, action, 
                and expression?
        How do controlled passers of tests and getters of grades
                metamorphose into independent discovers?
        Do we really think that standardization encourages the
                development of individual traits?

Think about it. Much of what so, so many of us do is composed of taken-for-granted routines. Whether we have one technique or a variety of techniques, we still have a routine upon which we focus. We focus on what we do, we ask about whether something works or not, not so much to challenge the validity of our routine as to reinforce it and make it work better. And when a challenge arises, so many of us, like accomplished gunfighters, in a blur movement of the hand, pull out and rapidly fire our "That's not me." "It's not my personality." "It's not my style." "I could never do that." and "I believe." When we ask whether a technique works or not, we're asking the wrong questions. So many of us seldom ask the whys of student attitudes: why are or aren't the students turned on; why is or isn't what you're doing seemingly important to then; why do they see or don't see the tasks demanded of them as they do; why do or don't they come to class; why do or don't they get turned on.

So many of us are into syllabi that have emerged in these days as "binding contracts," not mutually negotiated and arrived at by student and professor. These syllabi are seen more as a protection of the professor than the education of the students. More often than not, these syllabi are laced in word and tone with flurries of warnings of penalty which ooze suspicion and distrust rather than support and encouragement and respect. More often than not, everything is done by us for them. Everything is organized for the students, everything is planned out for the students, everything is scheduled for them, everything is defined for them. We impose a particular pattern and dirge-like cadence of study over which we hold the threatening cat-o-nine-tails of "to make sure they read it" pop quizzes and unannounced tests. Gobs of material are thrown out with the expectation they will be consumed and then regurgitated. Education so often equivalent to sitting still, being quiet, eyes straight, hearing and writing down, "mastering" of a set mass of information, given ways of thinking and doing. We engage in perpetual academic hazing. It so often is a student vs. faculty gladitorial contest rather than a student with faculty association in supporting and encouraging community. Students have to tune into the professors' wave length. Taking an exam is not learning; it's psyching out and/or second guessing. Students don't learn how to learn, they learn about the teacher. What else do you think all those bombardments of nervous questions--"What do you want?" "Can we" "What do you think about...." "Is it all right to..." "Are we going to get graded on...." "Are we allowed to...."Is this okay," "Should we"--mean? The students give the prof what does he or she wants because all too often the prof wants back what he has given the student--sometimes almost verbatim--what he or she has lectured or handed out.

We assess them. We give them quizzes, pop or otherwise, test, exams, finals, and then the grade. The academic record, the course grade, the Grade Point Average, the entrance and professional exam scores, all become the primary criteria for evaluation on the unproven hope and silly assertion they will predict not only academic success, but professional achievement as well.

For the first 25 years of my academic career I was one of those professors. When anyone asked what I did, my answer was a quick throw my title at them: "I'm a Professor of history." End of question and answer period. Translated that meant I did as I had been taught. I was subject-oriented; I focused on what I did; I transmitted information; I talked, they listened; I crammed them and jammed them, tested them, and graded them.

In beginning in early 1992, soon after I had my personal epiphany, I started on an evolutionary course and began answering the question of what I did became a more extended conversation of a staccato question and answer period.

"What do you do at the University?"

"I teach students."

"Yes, I know. But, what do you teach them?"

"I teach them that they can be their own learners."

"What department are you in?"


"Why didn't you say you teach history in the first place?"

"I don't. I teach students."

A translation of that conversation is that I was becoming learning-oriented and student-focused. It meant that I wanted to be there to help each person become the person he or she is capable of becoming. Lately, I feel that, too, is not really what I want to do. Whether I said, "I teach history" or "I teach students" I am beginning to see it still says I guide, I instruct, I impart, I show, I direct, I lead. I make known. I teach. Whether I have moved from being the proverbial sage on stage or guide on the side, I still do. I am slowly thinking I still have a ways to move, that where I presently am is still not where I should be.


         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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