Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Teaching, Learning, and the Stuff In Between


Teacher 3-12-13  I’m thinking today of the difficulties of teaching, especially teaching those who are no longer children.  I’ve been a trainer in my corporate life, and I’ve had many other work-related opportunities to teach, so I know how hard it can be to reach learners.  And while I am certain that reaching young learners brings its own brand of difficulties, I think teaching adults causes the instructor to have to combat many years of pre-existing ideas and acquired life lessons—much of which may not be on par with the lessons that need to be taught in the classroom.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of my instructors seems to be fighting that battle right now.  It’s my Contracts class, and I think I’ve mentioned that it’s fairly difficult, with some complex ideas to consider.  And I also mentioned that the difficulty caused me to make only an 80% on the first exam, and that many others in the class struggled far more than I.  As we’ve gone along since that first test, it’s been pretty apparent that many of the class are still struggling, though it’s not entirely apparent just why that is.  But I think maybe it’s a classic situation of failure to communicate.

For myself, after that first exam, I did some serious re-evaluating of how I studied his material and tried really hard to recognize what it was I thought that he truly found important.  I asked a lot of questions during class, trying to hone in on key concepts and soak them into my brain.  At least for our most recent test, that approach was successful and I aced it.  But, I’m far from confident I can repeat that performance, and that can be kind of scary.  For the students who did not adapt to his style of teaching and did not do well on either exam, I can imagine their frustration.

But, while I understand that the most successful of instructors should be able to adapt their styles to the different learning styles of their students, I also think successful students have to be prepared to do some adapting of their own.  I think they at least have to meet half-way.  And, while a lot of my classmates would disagree, I think our professor has tried to adapt some, too.  He has offered different examples at times when I’m pretty sure he thought the first couple should have been more than clear.  He’s devoted entire classes to reviews of topics when it seemed that we were struggling with particular concepts.  He’s tried to spell out specific ways that we should approach learning the material.  I think he is trying to reach the masses, though I don’t think he’s succeeding very well just yet.

But, what he doesn’t do is coddle anyone.  He has made clear from the beginning that he believes we’re all adults, responsible for taking control of our own educational experience.  His attitude is pretty much, “come to class or don’t, study or don’t, turn in your assignments or don’t; it’s your grade and your future”.  But he always follows that up with offers to meet with students one-on-one, encourages class discussion and questions, and encourages study groups.  And, tonight, when many, many people were quite vocal about their dissatisfaction with their test grades, he allowed them to state their case and offer proof of why his questions were wrong or ambiguous.  He allowed himself to be persuaded on two questions, and will update grades accordingly, though on at least one of the questions, I think it’s just the class being whiny babies.  Still, I think it proves that he’s trying to be fair—something that most of the class doesn’t believe—and that he wants to work with us to help us succeed. 

But, somehow, I think a lot of people have gotten the idea that learning is completely the responsibility of the teacher.  This seems to be true even in my night classes, which have a good proportion of older students (though few as old as I!) who I would expect to know better.  Maybe it’s my old age showing, but I still think people are primarily responsible for themselves.  But this expectation that knowledge will somehow just be handed over on a silver platter is a great deal of the problem teachers face.  I saw it in the professional environment when I was teaching, and I see it now in the educational world.  It makes me feel bad for teachers, especially those who won’t give in and lower their expectations, those who recognize that learning to adapt and grow and think for ourselves is a critical part of the education we pay for.  It might make me want to pull my hair out sometimes, but I’m grateful for it, just the same.  And I think I wouldn’t want to be a teacher.

You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.” ~ Dr. Seuss