In yesterday’s Required Readings, librarienne pointed us to a profile of a community college professor, Dr. Eduardo Vianna, which described many challenges facing community colleges, many of which are shared by those of us teaching at “non-elite” four year institutions as well. The article highlights various topics that we at School of Doubt think and write about a lot, like students struggling with complexity, lack of recognition of the value of their classwork, issues with the current model of education, etc.
The article presented these problems and identified how some of them are being addressed though of course we’re all still working on that.
Two quotes made me pause as I read though:
Professors at elite four-year colleges can trust that students share a bank of references, that they will understand principles of critical inquiry, that they will appreciate conceptualization for its own sake.
I taught at an elite college as a visiting professor for a few years. While it is true there was less of a struggle with some of the issues identified above, it is by no means true that they are simply absent. Many of my students did not enjoy taking the required science classes I taught for core credit and would resist just as much as the students I currently have from less privileged environments. The major difference wasn’t that they “understood principles of critical inquiry” or “appreciate[d] conceptualization for its own sake,” it was that they had to be more inventive in coming up with excuses for why they didn’t do the work – most didn’t have jobs or families eating away at their time. My current students will at least have practical matters that prioritize over their homework to avoid the “hard stuff” rather than video games and parties.
That being said, heck yeah the students at the elite school were much more prepared to do that kind of work than the students at my current institution. I could trust that when absolutely forced to do the work, as in “you’re going to fail if you don’t,” they could manage with limited supervision as the tools were already in place from their previous education. The ease they could employ was very useful in that I could provide more possibilities and choices to the students to engage them in something they found of interest, rather than all students doing the same thing so I can more closely monitor and foster skill development in the class. That kind of ease is very valuable in allowing a flexible and varied education, though it is by no means necessary to ensure a strong foundation in the skills of critical inquiry and conceptualization.
The second quote:
Dr. Vianna, who was also there, asked students if they, too, felt stuck at times. One student responded that no, he did not, things came easily to him. Many of the others rolled their eyes.
This one is the one that really gave me pause. The set-up, where the idea is to allow students to express their own uncertainties and process the idea that learning isn’t easy, leads to this put down. A student who may well be bragging is met with derision for being able to do the work.
One of my first students at my current institution came by last week – she graduated a few years ago and is attending a challenging professional school and is enjoying it very much. She was a high performing student and would have fit in well at the elite school I mention above, but couldn’t afford it. She was telling us about her first year and how it was different from our school, and she expressed the worry that her study habits, which clearly had always worked, didn’t seem to be enough especially when compared to the others in her group. She reads and remembers extremely well and learning is easy for her. This is likely because she has trained her memory to meet her needs over the course of her education.
When did it become a bad thing to learn easily?
Rather than rolling their eyes, why are the other students not asking WHY? What can you tell me to make MY learning easy? Working with the students to identify why it’s easy for some, which could be an inherent feature or may indeed be a skill that can be shared, could help many students see where they could work on building skill sets for themselves. It would also help the student with the skills hone them as teaching something is a very valuable way to learn more.
Learning often isn’t easy, but it’s not a bad thing if it is. Let those students become leaders and teachers themselves instead of making them question if they’re doing it right.