Get over yourself, get over your students

Making a good impression or the Monet shot (I'll stop now)
Making a good impression
the Monet shot
(I’ll stop now)

Talking with a colleague at another institution this week, he mentioned that many of his colleagues felt there was a ‘student problem’: the teaching was good, but the students were simply unable to make much of it. Their poor grades and weak academic practice was, essentially, their fault.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that such views are not uncommon. You see echoes of it in those listicles on Facebook come marking time: “look what my dumbass students wrote”, “15 photos that make you ask why we bother to even try to teach them.” I’ve done it myself, like when I talk to people about the class presentation I had to sit through on Claud Monet’s contribution to European integration. I’m smart, they’re dumb, and you’re smart, because you understand what the mistake is and why they’ve made it. Basically, XKCD for political science, but much less generous in its humour.

This, of course, is all wrong.

It’s wrong first and foremost because it doesn’t treat our students with the respect they deserve. You wouldn’t do this to your colleagues (would you?), so why go it to your students? To construct a view of ‘students as stupid’ collapses the learning environment and fundamentally compromises your relationship with them. In essence, you’re saying that there’s no point trying to teach them, because they can’t learn anything much, so why should you or they bother?

Secondly, it’s wrong because it’s almost always not true.

All of this is what I would call a ‘type 2 teaching problem.’ Whether anyone else calls it that, I don’t know, because I evidently didn’t spend enough time paying attention in my Postgrad Cert classes. However, I do remember the main thrust of the point.

The first type of teaching problem is to say that you, the teacher, have the problem. “I don’t know how to do this” is the key refrain. You worry about controlling the class, about knowing the material, about being asked a question (whether or not you know the answer). Basically, you worry a lot.

The second type we’ve covered – you are confident in your abilities, but now you discover that the students are the problem. They fail to respond to your evident talents, but you know your onions, so the fault must be theirs.

What is really needed is to get to the third type of problem.

Instead of saying you yourself or the students are the issue, you finally confront the only other option, namely that the learning environment is at fault. You assume that you are capable, that your students are capable, but that there is something in your interaction that’s not working properly: fix that and things will be sorted.

The beauty of this is that it’s actually much easier to handle things if you take this approach. Changing people is hard, even if you’re being positive about it all, and especially if you’re also calling them stupid. People have varied abilities and preferences, so taking a rigid view of ‘the best way’ to learn is unlikely to be successful.

A learning environment is much more malleable and adaptable to circumstance and it offers a possibility to draw in your students to help identify the problem. Such co-construction is good in of itself, because it validates students’ confidence in their ideas and their willingness to express them. It’s one of the reasons we here at ALPSblog like simulations: we’re putting more responsibility into students’ hands and helping them to thrive in that space.

Let’s go back to that presentation. Funny though I found it, I also recognised at the time why the student had made the mistake: they’d probably never heard of Jean Monnet before, while they had heard something of Claude, but not enough for his paintings to fix in their mind: the student said as much when I asked him about it. Indeed, apart from the name, the presentation was a pretty good first effort to handle the topic. I pointed out the misunderstanding, and we got on with talking about the rest of it, which was the real substance of the matter (cf my own inability to recall the proper name of this typology, against my ability to recall its substance).

Likewise, my colleague disagrees with his colleagues about that ‘student problem’ that opened this piece. He wants to learn more about different approaches to learning and we had a very useful discussion.

People respond to stimuli, so spending some time thinking and planning how best to direct those stimuli towards your learning objectives is going to be time well spent.