They Come to Class

After reading Jolisa Gracewood’s post School Bully on her blog Busytown—an impassioned argument about the wisdom of teaching for testing—I’ve had a number of conversations about the direction and future of education. This guest blog, by a highly dedicated (and now despairing) teacher in the tertiary sector, is the result of one of those conversations.

31133They come to class, most of them. They turn up on time, or late, and queue after the end of teaching to get their names ticked off the roll. There’s no attendance criterion, but turning up seems to be taken as the principal work of doing a subject, which is why the weeks before the start of semester are so hectic, with everyone jockeying for the best timetable pattern they can get. But the day after results for the first assessment are released the round tables in the blending learning space have two or three people at them, not the usual five or six. Even though the day’s teaching is to help them with their next assignment, it is resentment, not practicality, that wins out.

It is the 7th week of semester. Once again the girl who sits with the girl with the straightened hair, the girl whose phablet is always in or near her hand, has not brought her book of essential readings to class. We have this routine. I lift my eyebrows, and say, ‘So you haven’t got your reader?’ ‘Do I need it?’ she asks, and I walk to the next table, laughing. Today, once again, most of them haven’t done the reading, and when I play the video lecture pods quietly in the background, the girl who never brings her unit reader points at the woman on screen and says, ‘Who’s that?’I mime a button being pushed, an ejector seat going up. ‘Massive fail,’ I say, ‘that’s the other lecturer. As everyone knows.’ I resist looking around the room: there were fewer laughs at the ‘Who’s that?’ than I’d expected, which means there are other people who haven’t watched the lectures, and don’t know what’s going on. Other people who will probably write anxious emails to me the night the next assessment is due, saying, ‘I don’t understand the instructions. Tell me what I have to do.’

I did tell them what they had to do at the time—when we were doing that week’s stuff. They were sitting in class, they were present—most of them—when we did the practical exercises, and ran through the conceptual terms. They sat at their round tables, staring at me as I stepped them through what their portfolio was, and what they had to do, what we expected to see. They were right there when I took them through it. Conversation analysis maybe, or semiotic analysis: Charles Sanders Peirce, he of the long beard and the overblown typology of signs: 60,000 separate elements. But the coarse makes it simple, going over Peirce’s trichotomy of signs: index, symbol, icon. Three is ok. Three is good. The holy trinity of signs. And when the assessment comes in, I find I’m marking one about Peirce’s tracheotomy. The word recurs. On the third repetition I write in the margins: ‘Did he do it with the casing of a ball point pen?’ realising, as I write it, that this is what being defeated means, and this is what I’ve come to.

Most of our students in the Bachelor of Arts are just travelling through—the BA is the gateway to a Masters of Teaching. They are training to become teachers, primary and secondary. I wonder a lot of the time now what they’re going to teach, what stuff of the world is in them that they’ll draw out for the children in their charge. Because they are not learning much here—they come to class, and that’s it. They don’t read. They don’t come to lectures, or watch the lecture pods that we’ve made, not like filmed lectures, but like film, they’re so highly produced. Most of them don’t watch them. And if I show an excerpt of a film in class and ask a question about some shot, or section of dialogue, most of them can’t remember it. Even if I’ve paused the video just after the line in question has been spoken.

One of my colleagues was teaching his First Years about metaphor. Whether its about Judy Garland and the musical or the behaviour of the gerund this man is as clear and engaging a teacher as you could ever want. That week he was teaching metaphor, by example and analogy, given that that’s the logic of metaphor. Loving a good show tune, he plays them Barbra Streisand’s ‘Evergreen’, then he asks them to unpack the song’s structure of metaphor. But there is no-one in the class who knows that there’s a type of tree called ‘evergreen’.

This is the problem of teaching now, not what to teach, nor even how: it’s how to manage the impossibility of teaching when there is nothing to teach to; nothing to hang the ideas off, no language to build on. Not even stories commonly shared. I use the Titanic a lot, because nearly everyone knows what it was, and that it sank. It is my principal teaching analogy now: that unsinkable ship, that wreck.

It used to be that before the start of a semester I’d have teaching nightmares. That I am late to class, that the tutorial room is in a building in another campus, that the tutorial room is in mid-air, above my head, with no way up to it. Those dreams come more frequently now. In my most recent, I am running to class but get caught in a crowd of people moving in another direction, and when finally they disperse I find I’m on a ferry, and there’s a widening expanse of sea between me and the building in which I teach.

8 comments to They Come to Class

  • As a secondary school teacher who has also taught in the tertiary sector I share some of these frustrations. I don’t know exactly the whys and wherefores as to why so many of our students don’t read or have a great disinterest in what we teach. I do, however, suspect that oddly enough teachers and the entire education system are partly responsible–our assessment regimes with their nit-picky breaking down of all knowledge into discreet criteria—structuralism’s last sweet revenge–do not encourage imaginative or creative thought. Students complete hours of donkey work grind that bores them to death. The education system is now an almost totally goal-driven ‘outcomes’ enterprise. Explaining and completing assessment tasks are seen as more important than reading about or developing ideas. As a teacher, I try to create ‘clubs’ where students learn outside of assessment regimes. So I run a Philosophy Club, a Creative Writing Group, a Chess Club. This is where interest sparks and flares. I try to make my classes interesting and to be as well prepared and motivated as possible. The students I teach are just regular teenagers; no brighter or dumber than those in my teenage days.

    • Elizabeth

      I think you’re completely right to lay the blame at the door of the education system’s assessment regimes. That’s why the link to Jolisa’s piece. The students in my guestie’s courses have had any interest in formal learning crushed out of them by what my son used to refer to very aptly as ‘eternal assessment’ by ‘eternal examinations’.

  • Abbie Jury

    Twenty three years ago I had the good fortune to receive a study bursary to travel to the UK to look at assessment of prior learning. There I encountered the Scotvec model. At least I think that is what it was called but it should be Scotvoc because it was the Scottish vocational model of assessment – breaking learning into small, discreet units which could be marked by a checklist, tick the boxes approach. Even then it was clear to me that this failed to assess actual learning in the wider spectrum,that only learning which could be broken down to tiny units would be marked, that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of the defined parts, that the mechanics of assessment replaced learning. When applied to prior learning, I was told the assessment process took as long as doing the actual course work that it was replacing. This seemed to defeat the purpose of APL.I came home and wrote a commissioned report for NZQA expressing concerns about this approach. In the time since, I have seen it embraced in this country not just for adult prior learning but across the school and undergraduate sectors, creeping into preschool now. And 23 years later, I still think it is a dismal model.

  • Elizabeth

    Also worth thinking about

    “…students have this crushing debt burden. They also have to view their education as a transaction, and have no alternative but to look for a return on investment. All of these things effectively limit our ability to actually produce a freethinking, educated citizenry that is capable of altering society for the better.”

  • Very interesting post. Have been following the question mostly as it relates to schools, so interesting to see how the same malaise affects tertiary studies. Clearly the crisis in education is nothing but a reflection of the crisis in the society as a whole.

    My take on the wider issues:
    http://convincingreasons.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/education-the-professions-and-a-lousy-compromise/

  • I’m a New Zealand teacher who works in London, inside a system that is currently a few years along the path of the instrumental ‘teach to the test’ practices that National are integrating into the NZ education system. Teachers here no longer pay any heed to the curriculum, they simply teach exclusively to the fin alt standardised tests. All forms of internal assessment are being eradicated to confound the schools who ‘gamed’ the system (a euphemism for ‘cheated’) and assessment of student learning is now expected to come in the form of high stakes norm-references final tests at the students at the ages of 11 and 15. Teachers’ salaries are now indexed to ‘performance’ and this is largely regarded to be represented by the ‘progress’ of their students. All teachers are in thrall to spreadsheets tracking their students’ progress towards ‘targets’ and capability proceedings are instituted against any teacher whose students don’t make required progress. Schools whose students’ aggregate progress is below the average are classified as ‘Requires Improvement’ and if they can’t show improvement in a short timeframe these schools are forceably shut down and re-opened as ‘academies’ – something like the NZ Partnership Schools. Academies are bulk funded public-private partnerships and don’t have to follow the national curriculum. They also are not required to employ qualified teachers. Existing state schools are not allowed to expand and cannot make capital improvements.

    Needless to say the UK system is in a state of crisis and many teachers are leaving the profession – or moving into private schooling – often simply so they can continue to teach their students in the way they believe is of the greatest value to them.

    One of the overriding impressions I have of the teachers and schools in the UK state system is the extent to which they are terrified by the instruments of the state. This has lead to teaching practices that are incredibly risk-averse. Nothing that cannot be justified in terms of outcomes in key examinations is given any investment or time.

    This presentation by sociologist Frank Furedi adds some interesting thinking to the discussion. Instead of questioning the (obviously questionable) free-market motives of these changes, he challenges the ideologies that underpin the assumption that educational progress can be measured effectively by high-stakes examinations. Your readers might find it interesting: Frank Furedi at the ResearchEd Conference, London, 2013

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