Is Education Meant to Be Easy? And other ruminations on required assignments
Posted by Kristan Morrison on Dec 04, 2009 - 10:51 AM
The semester is winding down for my teacher education students and me. We are all filled with that sense of anticipation that comes when you see hard work reaching an end. It is at this time each semester that I start gathering my thoughts about changes I want to make to my courses for the new semester, and it is at this time when I ask my students to give me advice and feedback on how things went for them in my class. Inevitably, the conversation comes around to the reading responses -- the weekly written assignments where students give evidence of having read and processed the assigned texts.
Each week, I give students anywhere from 25 to 50 pages to read for class and I ask them to provide proof of having read and processed the information. This weekly evidence will make up around 40% of their final grade, and that proof can come in a multitude of forms, which I list on the syllabus at the beginning of the term. I provide samples for them to look at and make clear that they can deviate from the list I provide (see examples at bottom of post).
How did I, a person who believes in minimal teacher control and compulsion, get to this sort of assignment? Because I was a traditionally schooled student, and because I have been around college students in conventional institutions of education for a long time, I know that if teachers don't quiz or test (as I don't), then many students are unlikely to do the assigned readings prior to class unless some other incentive (or threat of punishment) is in place to motivate them. I don't like this state affairs, but I know it exists -- that rational students, students who have been well-schooled in the hidden curriculum of conventional education, seek to put in the least amount of effort to achieve the highest amount of recognition (read: grades). I hear horror stories of students who fake or "BS" their way through class discussions, thus fooling their teachers into believing they did the homework. Or yesterday, a student even told me about another professor who just asks her students to show some proof of having done the assigned reading by showing that they've highlighted the text. My student related how his friend, one hour before class, randomly goes through and highlights the readings, then shows this "proof" of having read and processed to the teacher and gets credit for the assignment. ARRRGH! This is not what I want for my classes!
I want my students to do the reading so that class isn't one big "BS" session. My lessons are not developed as "transmission" events (where I talk at a bunch of passive information consumers); rather, they are designed to help students process information from the readings in community with one another. I rarely lecture; rather, I plan various small group activities, simulations, whole group discussions, etc. to facilitate the processing of a the complex ideas involved in the historical, philosophical, sociological, financial, and political analyses of American education that make up a foundations course. All such lessons are predicated on the assumption that the students did the assigned readings that are meant to give them the background information and basis for discussion (in Freirean-speak, these are the objects and ideas upon which teacher-students and student-teachers cogitate).
If the students don't do the assigned readings, then our discussions and activities fall flat. I know this from experience. In my first semester teaching an undergraduate foundations of education course, I had no mechanism of "incentivizing" students to do the reading. As far as motivating them to do the readings, I had counted on their inherent interest that I assumed surely
must be present for a course that was in their chosen major. After a semester of shallow interaction, I realized that I had to do something to get the students to do the readings. And thus the idea for the reading responses was born. Over the past seven years, the forms of the reading responses have changed; some years I tried that "just show me highlighting" (and I noticed a lot of shallow discussion that semester; perhaps I had some students who just highlighted an hour before class, similar to my current colleague); I tried out literature circle roles (e.g. discussion director, illustrator, connector, etc.); I tried out very closed-ended questions; and I settled this past semester on very open-ended choice in response types.
Regardless of the format, I invariably have comments and complaints from my students (from three different universities where I've done this) that there's too much work in my class, that the reading responses (in conjunction with the other assignments for the class) have them worn out by the end of the semester. I, too, am worn out from all the grading that is required for this. I'm always tempted to take shortcuts too, but I feel that closely reading each student's response each week is my part of the deal, and I also benefit from it in the sense of getting to know my students better (I typically have 25 to 30 students in a class and my university's teaching load is four classes per semester), and in being able to refer to their writings in class, thus deepening our discussion in ways explicitly relevant to them.
But I do empathize with my students' cries of overwork -- so when we have our discussions at the end of the semester about how they think the course should change, I listen very carefully for their suggestions. I begin our discussion with the question of "If I had not assigned the reading responses, would you have read for class?" Their consistent and honest response is "No." When they respond "No" to my question, I then ask, "Well, how could things be changed so that the workload is less but you still do the readings?" We are all pretty well stumped on the question. They know they want things easier, but by lightening the load, are we not also making the process less valuable or worthwhile? Is education meant to be easy? For people who are studying to be teachers, this is a difficult set of questions. They are caught between two worlds -- that of being in a conventional setting where the focus seems to be just grades on a final transcript and that of thinking about how a meaningful and transformative education can truly happen for their future students. While I think my students do, on some level, understand my arguments (rationales?) that one gets more out of an experience if one struggles (again, Freirean), they are also still very much caught up in the student mindset where the mean ol' teacher is making them do something against their will!
I feel that conventional education has dug itself a hole with the whole grades thing. As Alfie Kohn argues more eloquently than I ever could a (especially, see "From Degrading to De-Grading"
), students have essentially been tricked into thinking that learning is grades (a performance orientation) rather than a satisfying, but sometimes frustrating, grappling with complex ideas (a learning orientation). In order to possibly help our students see the value of information and the process of struggling with that information, those of us in conventional education settings seem to have to reinforce students' performance orientation by compelling them (through threat of poor grades) to engage with material. Though we may be getting students to have a meaningful, educative experience in doing this, we are also perpetuating a performance orientation and thus, in part, undoing the meaningfulness of the educational experience! It is a vicious circle that can only be ended by a wholesale rejection of the concept of grades. Sadly, I don't see that happening anytime soon, so I will continue to engage my students in a reflection at the end of each semester on the questions of: Can learning happen in conventional college classrooms without an element of compulsion? How can I know you'll read if I don't grade you somehow?
Ideas are welcome ......
Appendix: Reading Response Ideas
1. Pretend Diary entries
2. Editorial cartoons
3. Satirical tests/quiz
6. Reflective essay (most traditional)
8. Song/poem (e.g. like a dialogue poem, such as “Honeybees” by Paul Fleischman)
9. You tube (that you create or that expresses your reflections of the readings)*
10. Devil's advocate article or letter to the editor/letter to the authors(s)
11. Short newspaper or newsletter
12. TV or radio broadcast script
13. Comic strip/comic book
15. Interview with the author(s)
17. Response log (where you divide a paper in half lengthwise and list quotes on one side of the paper and your reactions on the other)
18. Game board*
19. Picture album/scrap book*
20. Advice column
21. A day in the life
22. Any other idea you can come up with!