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As any teacher would tell you, education is not for the faint of heart. There seems to be the long-standing myth that all teachers do is just sit in chairs checking their email or doing phone apps all day, throw a few homework assignments at the kids, and then collect paychecks and enjoy holidays off. In reality, teaching is quite a hard job and requires a lot of work and practice, and anyone who WOULD be tempted to act out the above scenario will end up being a pretty poor instructor. (About the only place where you could really get away with that is a college setting where the burden of learning is more squarely on the students and there’s little stopping a class from being ‘sink or swim’ in some situations.)

However, one situation that I truly dislike is something I have seen many times before in my own experiences. Occasionally it occurs at the grade school level, but the way the educational system is set up for K-12 grades tends to discourage it more. It’s far more rampant at the college level. At any rate, it’s a mark of when the education process completely degenerates, sadly mostly on the part of both the teacher and student doing things to mutually “escalate” the process. There’s no “official” term for it yet based on my knowledge, so let’s call it: “Moe Teaches Curly”.

The model is fairly straightforward but holds a lot of complexity, so let’s start with what it is. Basically, I got the idea, as you might expect, from an old “The Three Stooges” short called “Busy Buddies”. In the short, Curly is enrolled in a cow-milking contest to try and win some fast cash to save the diner the stooges run. Before stepping out, Moe presents a (mostly ridiculous) model of the inside of a cow, and Curly wants to know “where do you get the milk”.

MOE: (While pointing to parts of the diagram) “Well, there’s a pipeline that connects the spare ribs and comes down through the chopped liver, connected by a homophagle through the meatloaf. You drop up here to liverwurst, and a straight drop down to the auto club, where you get your three gallons.”

CURLY: “Of milk?”

MOE: “No, gas. Yeah, where was I… Oh yes, then you get upon the side of the thing here and around the sukiyaki and the (garbled) here…and that leaves the frankfurters, and that’s it.”

CURLY: “OOOOOh…”

MOE: “Is that clear?”

CURLY: “Yeah, that’s clear. But where do you get the milk?”

Meant to be a joke, of course…but the only problem is this is a case where truth is stranger than fiction, and a similar thing plays out in classrooms in which both teacher and student take the roles of “stooges”.

If you analyze the above a bit more, seeing beyond it as a pure joke, you see basically what went on. Moe, playing the part of the teacher, had complete confidence in his own knowledge (the fact that it was correct or incorrect is irrelevant in this case). Everything made clear sense to him in the way he explained it. He gave forth a sense of foreknowledge and familiarity. And as a result, he gave what he thought was a clear and accurate explanation in what he believed were perfectly normal terms that he could easily process and, therefore, other people could process.

Already, the first flaw in this thinking becomes obvious, which also became obvious in my own attempt to become a teacher. I’m a bright student. I have a 4.0 GPA, one bachelor’s, and a master’s. I retained a great deal of content knowledge and I knew my science well. Therefore, I figured that I could easily teach it. I knew it frontwards and backwards and I loved explaining it. However, as anyone in teaching will tell you, content knowledge is only a small part of the overall equation and, in many situations, isn’t even remotely close to the important part. Far more important is how to present that knowledge in a way that individuals will understand, and even more important is being able to interpret a scattering of cues and personality traits to identify and tailor a lesson to a certain student while not missing anyone else in the class. Content knowledge, in the worst case, is like having a car that has excellent climate control, sound systems, and handles well…but can only drive 5 mph and travel 10 miles before it breaks down. Ultimately, it doesn’t help unless “other things” work first.

In addition, the assumption that one already has a good knowledge of their own material and knows it frontward and backward relative to who they are teaching is a display of both egocentrism as well as hubris…neither of which has a place in a teacher. Being a teacher means you have to have a great deal of empathy…essentially think through every class through the perspective of the students, not yourself.

Worse than that, however, is the fact that with this idea that you know a great deal and that your method of presenting that information is good might come an amount of “pride”. Back when I was working on being a teacher, I would craft lesson plans that were designed to hit many points in “standards” and that I figured were adaptable and brilliant and engaging. And they might very well have been until in a given class they weren’t. But what happens then? Well, if I’m a bad teacher, I might just simply rehash the same lesson. After all, if I feel it is already in a simple, easy-to-understand format, why would I change it? And if they don’t get it after that, I might grow irritable and frustrated. It goes without saying after the scene above, Moe didn’t restate the lesson…he pretty much smacked Curly. Now, teachers can’t very well smack their students, but a bad teacher might simply conclude the student is dumb or, worse yet, not trying. I don’t see this in grade school, but in college it is rampant. All that matters to a professor is whether they provided an adequate explanation, not whether the student felt that way. Granted, most professors are smart enough to try and work harder…but I have encountered professors before who thought their explanation was ample and the fault was entirely on the student. I even encountered one who attributed the entire class unable to understand the explanation not due to her own poor teaching ability but to every student in the class failing on purpose. You don’t get much more hubris than that.

Yet another side item to note is the question in between. When Curly asks Moe a question of clarification, the response is to give an answer that doesn’t help Curly understand the problem, to get slightly annoyed at having his train of thought interrupted, and then to resume exactly where he left off not mindful that his audience is getting confused. After all, to adapt a lesson, to assess that the student doesn’t understand and respond, means more work and more thought. It means not keeping to a schedule. It means falling behind in a syllabus they are expected to hold to. So the temptation is to deal with questions quickly and move on.

However, even if questions are handled well, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I have had professors before who stop to ask for questions. Many don’t, so that’s a point in their favor. They even wait a few moments of silence to see if someone can speak up. And normally, in most situations, that’s beneficial. The problem is these professors didn’t create a good environment for questions. Their answers were rehashes of the same confusing material to begin with, their demeanor seemed to reject “explanations”, and they frequently said things such as this “kiss of death”…

“Now, for most of you, this should be review and so we can go quickly…”

That set up two problems. Now, the student who doesn’t immediately get it thinks they are at a disadvantage. And students, by default, lack empathy. I myself was in a confusing class where I stopped often to ask questions whenever I was confused. Not only did the instructor grow annoyed (which is too bad for them, because in college, I pay you to teach me…so suck it up and deal with it), but the other students grew quite annoyed as well. Nevermind the fact they were doing terribly in the class while I was making As…they still didn’t want me to “delay the lecture for learning” when they just wanted to be through the material. And I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been annoyed with students who “just don’t get it” myself. With that statement, the student now has the idea that they are behind everyone else and might be “dumber” than the rest of class.

The other problem…the teacher basically just said they intend to breeze through this with little explanation. Since this is “review”, they don’t really want to have to teach it…just assume the students all know it already. So what if it doesn’t end up being review? The instructor is going to get annoyed that they have to “waste time reteaching material”, and they pretty much said ahead of time: “You should all already know this, so don’t ask a lot of questions about it. If you don’t know it…well, you should have remembered it better.”

That about covers it for the teacher’s end. What about Curly? Or, in this case, the student?

Learning, as anyone serious can tell you, is an active process. You have to keep your mind engaged and trying to understand things at a deeper level. Nowhere is this harder than in college. In college, the goal of the university is to shove as much information in your head as possible in a small period of time. And, unfortunately, it has to be that way. College degrees are worth less and less as human knowledge expands. Post-graduate studies nowadays are geared toward teaching students things they probably should have learned in undergraduate school. Professors are falling farther and farther behind as there are more new things to learn every year, and specialities must arise simply because the “era of Edison”, in which one person could master an entire discipline, is over. The best any student can hope for is to specialize. And in the meantime, professors must put as much knowledge into the student as possible. The only way to do that is lecture.

However, lecture is only a way to put information out there. It’s the worst method to absorb knowledge. It requires active listening and a lot of it. And depending on how much information and how complex it is coming out, a student might be fighting so hard to wrap their brain around a concept that they don’t really have time to ask a question in between writing notes, or even to think of an appropriate one if they’re confused. They’d be left asking a generic “I don’t get what you just said”, which makes the class groan and the teacher’s eyes roll…because that doesn’t help at all.

Unfortunately, that’s likely to happen with hard material. What likely happened with Curly up above? Perhaps he paid attention to the first part or two. Perhaps he tried to stitch it together. But when your brain is working full tilt, the instructor is working at full steam, and everyone else is being quiet and receptive and (appearing to)understand every word, it’s not a good environment to call things to a “halt”. Therefore, when one bit of information comes in that doesn’t readily get assimilated…everything gets broken down. The student gets hung up trying to process that confusing bit…while the lecture moves on without them as well as the rest of the class. In the time it takes to get over it…assuming they get over it at all…they’ve already missed details. Also, if they DON’T get it, then any further explanation that builds on that is effectively lost. The teacher is now officially wasting their time teaching this student because everything has “broken down”.

Hence, the “Curly” part of the equation. What is the student to do now? The only thing they can do is try and call a halt to everything. And if the student is good, they will in spite of everything telling them not to, from the pace of the lecture to the instructor’s demeanor to the groans of classmates to the idea of looking like a fool. But they better be quick, and they better hope this is not one of those professors (of which, in my experience, at least a quarter of them are) who basically will tell the student to put their hand down until they can finish their train of thought/lecture. At that point, the student might be asking about something that happened much earlier, which, in turn, annoys the instructor because, if they are behaving as a true “Moe”, they believed it was clear as crystal and are already beyond that point and don’t wish to revisit it.

Furthermore, the statement “Yeah, that’s clear. But where do you get the milk?” is not as funny or awkward as it seems. On the contrary, it reflects reality. A student might very well understand the individual small components of a concept and “miss the forest for the trees”. It happens all the time since a complex subject is, after all, nothing more than a synthesis of smaller subjects an individual already knows. Here’s a more realistic example.

STUDENT: “I don’t get what the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus is supposed to be.”

TEACHER: “You understand what Real values are, right?”

STUDENT: “Yeah. All non-complex numbers…none with an i-term.”

TEACHER: “Alright. And you know what a continuous function is, right?”

STUDENT: “Yes.”

TEACHER: “And you know how to calculate the area of a rectangle, right?”

STUDENT: “Sure. Base times height.”

TEACHER: “Ok. And you know what a limit is, right?”

STUDENT: “Yeah…it’s what a function is supposed to be as you get closer to a value, right?”

TEACHER: “Correct. So you know what it is for the first part. The derivative of a continuous function of rear values is the difference in two points of the function over an interval as the interval approaches 0.”

STUDENT: “…But, what does that mean? I don’t get what that means.”

The teacher is probably frustrated at this point and wanting to tear his/her hair out. The fact of the matter is if the student understands all of those parts, they know what the first part of the fundamental theorem of calculus is. But the point being is that just because you understand the parts of something doesn’t mean you understand the whole, or have the capability of “putting the parts together”. That’s why some students are great test-takers but are not bright in the least. All they are doing is pretty much breaking the world into formulas and “plugging and chugging”, like human calculators. I’ve had instructors laugh at classes before for getting As in Calculus I and looking like “deer-in-the-headlights” for Calculus II when they ask what the first part of the fundamental theorem of Calculus is.

However…that’s a rather unfair mockery.

As I said before, students are expected to absorb an ever-growing body of knowledge quickly and apply it. There is no student I’ve ever seen who had the time or ability to completely master every last subject taught to them. For one thing, there’s no time to get the students to apply it to a level requiring a higher level of cognition. The instructor has to hurry up and teach the next subject before the end of the semester. Even graduates can rarely remember anything from their classes save what pertains to their job, and it’s likely they learned that better “on the job”. The constant push of information in college makes it very much a “use-it-or-lose-it” situation. No student in college wastes time sitting around thinking about material from classes they learned several semesters ago that they aren’t using…and, frankly, they’d be fools if they did because they need to worry about passing the classes now. And the instructors knew full well they just threw everything they could at the students long enough to get them to pass an exam before loading them with new things, so it’s unreasonable for them to expect students to remember material like that.

Furthermore, with the growth of human knowledge, the world is becoming more and more “black box” technology. Almost every instructor/professor uses a school database/email nowdays. Are they considered “fools” for not understanding how it works, makes decisions, routes information, etc.? Of course not, even if it’s reserved for their use. They only care that they put information in it in one format and get it out another. No one understands how their technology works anymore. People still mistakingly believe microwaves use radiation instead of excitation waves to cause molecules to vibrate, because all they know how to do is put in inputs and get out an output. Everyone uses cell phones. Few people know how they turn your voice into wireless signals that can be converted back into your voice. Or how you can record yourself with it as if it were a camcorder from the 1980s. Everyone uses television remotes. Few have any idea what the sequence of bits is being sent and at what frequency to control this television versus that television. Everyone uses a “black box” idea nowadays.

Calculus is no different. Most higher-education students know how to do basic derivatives and possibly basic integrals. Why are they doing it? Why is there a theorem that says they can do it? They have no idea, and it doesn’t matter. If they see a function that’s 3x^2, they know the derivative is 6x. Why is that? They don’t know…just that they were told at one point if you have an equation Cx^n, the derivative is C*nx^(n-1). And they accepted it. Does the average math student in college even know there exists a fundamental theorem of algebra? Probably not, especially since the theorem has to do with complex roots. Unless you get into signals and waves, you will likely never use a complex number in your entire life.

The bottom line, a student does a lot of things they “mastered” a long time ago without knowing why. And, in truth, that helps in many situations. Newtonian physics will tell you mass and acceleration are just “there”. Quantum physics, however, tells you that those properties can change…but a basic physics student doesn’t care because they’ll never need to know that to do a lot of physics. Yet instructors can come from the perspective where they assume the student is not only familiar with all of the “background” but instinctively thinks of it. These are extreme examples, but they apply just the same to smaller matters.

The end result? Back to our derivative matter, a professor might ask all of those questions above during a lecture, and most of the students could answer them if probed. Does it necessarily follow that they know what a derivative is? No, because the instructor didn’t ask the right questions. They only got the superficial layer, because all of those questions have simple answers. The student may very well get all of those right but, just like Curly, they understand perfectly and still don’t know “where you get the milk”. The more effective questions I see from students in my own experience aren’t even “questions”. Basically, they’re the student echoing back what they just gained from the professor’s lecture and are now “teaching it back”. If they end up with something completely off, then the instructor realizes the student didn’t understand a thing and came to the completely wrong conclusion, and also sees where they got mistaken.

Yet that rarely happens, due to reasons outlined above. More likely, the student will only be able to say: “Yes, I understand, but where do you get the milk?” This frustrates the Moe, who will either move on or say the same thing again in a non-effective way because the Curly never showed where they didn’t understand. This leaves the Curly more frustrated than before because now they’re getting the idea that they should be getting this but they aren’t, and they may either just drop the matter or continue to look confused. This ties up more of the instructor’s time they need to hit other things, encouraging more “Moe-like” behavior, while it upsets the rest of the class who either gets it or simply wants to go on, making the student appear more “Curly-like”. In the end…no one, teacher or student, emerges any wiser…all you have is a room full of stooges.

Compounding it is “resignation” on the part of the Curly. After a few tries of not getting it, or others appearing to get it easier, they may “give up”. They assume “Man, I just can’t get this…I guess I’m not going to figure it out”, and they just sit quietly and let the Moe continue the lesson uninterrupted. And they’ll continue to look to be a perfectly knowledgeable and well-educated student right up until test time or, worse yet, graduation. A resigned Curly encourages the teacher to become a Moe, because even if they don’t understand they don’t even try to. They simply sit without questions and attentive looks, leading the teacher to feel that they have indeed taught in the most effective way and everyone gets it. When a student does voice a concern, they appear to be the foolish outlier. Now…most instructors, including professors, are smart enough to find the “good” students and realize “if this one doesn’t get it…none of them get it.” But there are also instructors who don’t realize that, especially new and young ones, and assume this one is just slowing down everything for everyone else.

Therefore, to be able to keep this from happening in the classroom, both the teacher as well as the student has to “fight against it”. The instructor has to be humble enough (something that comes more through experience and interpersonal skills than anything else) to realize they don’t have the answers and they aren’t the “gods” of their subject. The student has to continuously actively learn and seize their education by force, even if they have to drag everything to a screeching halt until it’s clear as a bell. While the risk of “tying up things for everyone else” is there, in my experience the odds of the rest of the class not benefitting from such behavior as opposed to getting a “fringe benefit” are very slim. Even in classes where the teacher gave the “see me after class” spiel, I’ve never seen a class which wouldn’t have benefited from sitting there and letting the confused student continue to work at an answer.

Bottom line, everyone should take a bit more time for class. Ultimately, the best thing a student will ever learn from the educational process is how to “teach themselves”. And, as my old educational professor used to tell me, “many students succeed in doing so…in spite of the best efforts of the educational system”. The best thing teachers can do in this case is help a student figure out how they learn best and how to do it for themselves…at least in my opinion.

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