When Education Harms

Alternative title for this post:

Why Many Teacher-Training Programs Should Be Abolished

Perhaps some of you — at least in the USA — have noticed the phenomenon of college students using multi-syllabic words out of context. The student clearly does not know what the word he or she inserted into the sentence actually means.

I used to think this was an attempt to impress me in the hopes of getting a higher grade on the writing assignment — pull a complicated-sounding but inaccurate word from an online thesaurus instead of using something simpler. But perhaps the behavior is really a sign that the student is deficient in some basic literacy skills.

As pointed out in this National Public Radio story, millions of children in the USA do not learn how to read well at an early age because of the unscientific and ineffective methods used by their teachers. If children fall behind in the first few years of primary school, it’s probably difficult for them to become proficient readers later on. I’m now wondering if these deficits in literacy persist all the way into college.

Negatives of Nuance

Related to Simon‘s and Amanda‘s recent posts about failing to get the results one expects, here is a very simple example.

My first writing assignment prompt this semester for my course on economic development and environmental change read as follows:

Purpose of this response: learn about the nature of poverty and perceptions of the poor.

1. Read the rubric below.

2. Read/watch:

  • MRU: Basic Facts of Growth and Development.
  • Easterly, Ch. 1 and Intermezzo, p. 5-19.
  • Emily Badger and Quoc Trung Bui, “In 83 Million Eviction Records, a Sweeping and Intimate New Look at Housing in America,” The New York Times.
  • Hans Rosling, “The Magic Washing Machine,” TEDWomen, December 2010.

Answer the following question:

  • William Easterly writes “When those of us from rich countries look at poor countries today, we see our own past poverty.” (p. 19). Is this an accurate view of poverty outside and inside the USA? Why?

My intent in asking the question — which I thought was obvious from the “statement of purpose” that prefaced it — was to get students to think about the differences between how they think about the poor at home and about the poor in countries that they’ve probably only seen on the news, if at all. In other words, I wanted them to start thinking about why our perceptions of the poor often depend on where the poor are located.

Instead students wrote about wealth and poverty from a historical perspective — that the USA once had a low level of economic development, as measured by GDP or income per capita, and that’s where other countries are today. The USA developed into a high-income, industrialized society, so probably other countries, even the poorest ones, will eventually do the same. There was no real discussion of the nature of poverty in the USA or why it exists.

So I need to a better question, something like “Are the causes of poverty in the USA the same as in other countries? Why?” or “If the USA is an economically-developed country, why does it still have poor people?”

Beyond the Essay: Briefing Memos

Today we have a guest post from Vincent Druliolle, an assistant professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He can be reached at Vincent[dot]Druliolle[at]gmail[dot]com.

Undergraduates are repeatedly told that what they study is somehow relevant for practice, yet most assignments are structured as academic essays—even though only a handful of them will end up opting for an academic career. A few years ago, I decided that my students should have the opportunity to develop non-academic writing skills, and started assigning a briefing memo about an ongoing conflict.

The briefing memo is indeed a format widely used in government, international organisations, consultancies, and NGOs. However, because of the large range of topics and theoretical perspectives covered by my module and the limited number of teaching weeks, I had to find a way of integrating such an activity into my small-group seminars. I came up with the idea of making the memo a preparatory activity for my in-class simulation on peacebuilding and transitional justice.

The briefing memo differs from the traditional essay in both content and format. It is policy-oriented, because it is aimed at practitioners and decision-makers, and it presents information in a concise and attractive manner. It requires critically analysing source material beyond the standard academic literature, selecting what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that can convey the complexities of the conflict analysed.

Most students have never written a memo, but I don’t give them any guidelines. Instead, I ask them to look up examples that they can use as models. I prefer to ask the students to present their memos in class and discuss the difficulties of writing it. The first seminar of the simulation is thus about comparing and learning from the work of one’s fellow classmates. For class discussion, I recommend selecting at least a very good memo, a (very) bad one, and a few with significantly different formats and/or content. The greater the variety of memos, the better. I want the students to learn from each other, so I adopt the role of a facilitator, asking them to explain why they’ve chosen a given format and/or content, and fostering a class discussion about these aspects.

Many students admit that, as I warn them beforehand, it’s difficult at the beginning to figure out how they have to write the memo. Instead of assessing it at this stage, I ask the students to submit a revised version after the simulation that reflects what they’ve learnt from their classmates’ memos. Guidelines about how to write a memo can be provided at this stage or even afterward as part of a debriefing.

While writing the memo is an activity in its own right, in this case it is also a way for the students to acquire the knowledge necessary to participate in the simulation. They learn what information the memo should include because they have to put themselves in the shoes of the actors for whom the memo is written in the first place. In this way, the memo prepares students for the simulation, while the simulation provides an opportunity for them to reflect on the writing of the memo. And for the instructor, memos are quicker (and less boring) to mark than essays.

The Benefits of Recycling

Today’s post is more about career development than teaching . . .

Academia is a bureaucratic work environment. Information is constantly documented and distributed. Often this happens to the same piece of information multiple times. Consequently I began recycling my writing as much as possible several years ago, in the belief that it is better to make minor changes, or none at all, to writing upon which I have already expended mental energy. An underlying principle here is writing with an ultimate rather than a proximal use in mind. What is the most valuable end to which this writing can be eventually directed? A simple example: the proposal for your conference presentation becomes the abstract for the conference paper, which in turn becomes the abstract for the manuscript submitted to a journal.

A second and, for some, more important example: the stream of email, editorial comments, draft committee proposals, and other written minutiae that one produces — it’s all work. Don’t let it disappear into the ether. Instead, use it for future contract renewal, tenure, or promotion.

I admit that I didn’t fully recognize the potential value of this writing until my wife — also an academic — compiled her application dossier for promotion to full professor. Watching her, I realized that, in the course of my day-to-day business as an associate professor and department chair, I had generated chains of emails and memos that constituted evidence of service and scholarship à la the Boyer model. I saw that this material, if organized coherently, could form much of my own application for promotion, in many cases verbatim. Continue reading

Back End Skills

Most ALPS posts deal with the front end of teaching — the stuff that eventually turns into the student experience. Today I’m going to talk about the back end of the job: skills that are beneficial for one’s career because they have applications far beyond the classroom environment. Here are the skills that I now wish I had acquired while in graduate school:

Writing for the Audience

As I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, the vast majority of academic writing is terrible. It is produced to be published, not to be read. Important ideas are not communicated well, if at all. For example, compare the writing of Anatol Lieven in Pakistan: A Hard Country to any journal article or multi-authored volume about that country. Or read Sarah Kendzior‘s The View From Flyover Country. These people can write well, a lot of people read what they write, and they have benefited professionally as a result.

Academics need to reach different audiences, and that requires learning how to write for those audiences. Take courses in journalistic or creative writing. Write memos. Submit op-eds to your local newspaper. Get feedback from people who write better than you do. Write a lot, even though it takes time. Use the process of writing as a tool to refine your thinking. Practice what we preach to students.

Graphic and Web Design

I’ve written about this before too — messages can and often should be communicated visually. But the message is lost if the visuals are bad. I’m often shocked by the inability of faculty members to display information in a manner that is easy to understand — whether for other academics or a curious and reasonably intelligent public. Creating simple but effective charts with Excel is not that difficult. Yet training in this basic skill was not part of my graduate program — I had to learn it on my own. Others probably never bothered.

My doctoral studies began just before the Web sprang into existence. Since then, I’ve been struggling to catch up with the digital revolution. This blog is one small tangible result. Don’t be left behind like I was — learn how to build websites. The more proficient at this you become, the more of an advantage you will have.

Data Literacy

Related to the above is the ability to work with data. Can you easily mine data by creating longitudinal analyses and calculating percentages? Do you know how to determine whether your data and conclusions are meaningful?  I am constantly amazed by what I can learn and communicate by making those simple Excel charts. I dream about what I could do if I knew R.

Stage Presence

Let’s face it: teaching is performance. As are committee meetings, admissions office recruitment events, and board meetings. Elocution and body language can make or break a conference presentation. Don’t be the person whom everyone immediately tunes out. Take a course in public speaking, acting, or musical theater.

People Management

We have to interact with others as part of larger organizations, and I bet every person who reads this has encountered at least one toxic colleague in their careers. Some of us end up with managerial duties, as research team leaders, department chairs, and administrators, yet we’ve never been trained for these roles. I recently attended a workshop on how to manage difficult conversations in the office, and it was eye-opening. Find out how you can become better at working with people. Then do it.

Another Example of What You Say Is Not What They Hear

Probably how students perceive me

Back in April, I gave an example of students comprehending a question differently than I did. In that case, I identified what I thought may have caused the miscommunication — the question needed to be worded slightly differently.

I now have another example, in an online graduate course. The question was “Of the different political and religious reactions to European imperialism by Middle Eastern societies, which was the most effective? Why?” This writing prompt corresponded to chapters from No God but God by Reza Aslan and The Modern Middle East: A History by James L. Gelvin. Students referenced information from these books, something I require, so I know that they actually read the assigned material.

Instead of writing about the ways in which Middle Eastern societies responded to colonization, several students submitted answers that discussed: Continue reading

Teaching with Trump: A Challenge and an Invitation to Problem-Based Learning

Our series on “teaching Trump” continues today with a guest post by Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and  Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University. He can be reached at Martin [dot] Edwards [at] shu [dot] edu.

Talk to the hand.

Teaching in a professional international affairs program offers some unique challenges. The focus at the graduate level is on professional skill development rather than preparing students for comprehensive examinations, and our students come from a wide variety of disciplines rather than as political science undergraduates. The election brought a unique challenge for those of us that teach International Organizations. It made clear that we need to better train students to speak up in defense of multilateralism, especially at a time in which the White House is suspicious of it. So, given the current climate, in which the White House is openly dismissive of the value of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Financial Institutions, and NATO, how can one rethink an established course so as to demonstrate its relevance? My approach to “Teaching with Trump” during the Spring semester was to refocus my graduate course on problem-based learning. Continue reading

What You Say Is Not What They Hear

I was recently reminded that although we like to think we clearly communicate our intent to students, this is not always the case. My globalization class is reading One White Face by Hilary Corna, an autobiographical account of a young college graduate who travels to Singapore on a whim and stumbles into a job with Toyota. I assigned a written response to this question:

The author writes that in her quest for normalcy, she “had become more and more abnormal.” What was the most significant abnormal decision she made after arriving in Singapore? Why? Define what you mean by “significant.”

I asked the question to get students to think about the ways in which an unfamiliar environment forced the author to evaluate her thinking from a new, and therefore abnormal, perspective. However, students understood the question differently. Their responses focused on the word “decision” and for the most part ignored “abnormal.” Most of them wrote about decisions that would be typical of any recent U.S. college graduates instead of pressures to adapt to new cultural norms.

To make the purpose of the question more transparent — in case I use the same book next year — I revised it to: Continue reading

ISA Creative Teaching Workshops

At the ISA’s annual convention last month, ALPS members led two of the Creative Teaching Workshops organized by Carolyn Shaw of Wichita State University. My colleague Sally Gomaa and I led the Teaching the World Through Authentic Writing Assignments workshop. Here are a few of our thoughts on the experience:

First, we were pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd. Sally and I met Carolyn, Simon Rofe, and Mary Jane Parmentier in person for the first time and reconnected with some of the ALPS crew. But participants in our workshop took diversity to an entirely different level — graduate students to senior faculty from a variety of academic disciplines, at least eleven different nationalities, and employment or study at a wide range in institutional environments.

This diversity demonstrated the truth that there is no universally-applicable solution to making students learn, whether through writing or any other means. Case in point: in the U.S. system of higher education, I am free to formally assess my students as frequently and in whatever manner I want, which allows me to use writing assignments as a stick to force students to read information that I provide. People who work in other systems don’t have this freedom, and writing exercises might have to be organized as ungraded classroom activities — which assumes students 1) attend class regularly, 2) see value in the activities. Another example: the instructor might not be  teaching in his or her primary language, which complicates the process of evaluating and providing feedback on students’ writing.

A second observation: the standard conference panel is a terrible way to learn about new pedagogical strategies. Its “I talk, you listen” format contradicts nearly every principle of active learning. Our panel, about teaching, was the usual affair with little time for give-and-take with the handful of people in the audience. The contrast with our workshop, where a much larger group of people applied themselves individually and collaboratively, frequently lobbing “What if we tried this?” and “Have you thought about this?” questions at each other, was stark. Nearly all of us teach, and for many if not most of us, teaching occupies the majority of our work time. So why are conferences structured to be mostly irrelevant to the careers of most academics? (Nina, Amanda, and Simon have discussed this subject previously).

Last item, related to the previous one: as is my habit, I did some participant observation while walking the hotel hallways and attending events. I noticed the young, bright-eyed, sharp-dressed graduate students, performing the rituals that they have been led to believe will gain them entry to the professoriate. It made me feel a bit queasy, because for many there will not be a pot of career gold at the end of the graduate school rainbow. The labor market for academics in many fields has collapsed. From my position of privilege as a tenured faculty member, I write about this subject periodically, like Cassandra of Troy. For someone else’s perspective on how the academy in the USA exploits the (sometimes willfully) naive, read Kevin Birmingham’s essay in The Chronicle.