Apart from my worries, ISA is also making me think about the purpose of teaching.
I’d been thinking about this anyway, partly because of this post from John Warner that popped up on my timeline recently.
The instrumentalisation of education as a stepping stone to the next thing, working, has been around for a long while now and it is pernicious in its compromising of student engagement: what they are told they need is a good grade, not a good education and given the incentive structure we shouldn’t be surprised if they act accordingly.
I’m guessing you’ve had these students in your class, more or less often. Either the ‘just tell me what I have to do to get a good grade’ version or the ‘my corporeal self is present, but not my mind’ version.
Regardless of whether we cleave to a knowledge transmission model of teaching, or (more likely among our readership) an active learning approach, you still rely on the student being present and engaged.
So what to do?
One of the conversations I sat in on here spoke about teaching as problematisation; making things uncertain to open up space for reflection, debate and development.
I like that idea. We aren’t here to solve the world for our students, but to invite them to create their own understandings of situations and problems, to recognise and act on their agency in that world.
But again, if our students aren’t in the metaphorical room, what good is challenging conventionalities?
My reflection is that much of what I have done over the years is try to distract students from their learning.
Using games and simulations, taking the class out onto the campus lawns, literally removing the physical and conceptual constraints of ‘the class’: it’s all grounded in a notion of ‘I’m not expecting this: what is it?’
The disruption of the moment hopefully leads to the delight of doing something different, and that hopefully leads further to ‘dammit, I’ve been learning stuff’.
Colleagues here have spoken about how alums tell them how they remember the random moments – the simulation, the talk of Russian hookers, the exercise with the blindfold – long after they forget the ins and outs of whatever IR theory was on the syllabus that week.
It’s why I will always argue that those who say fun can’t be serious are wrong.
Precisely because fun isn’t (linguistically) serious, it opens up the possibility of serious learning, of helping students to gain insight from all of their interactions with the world.
That’s why I can learn from the movie I watch on the plane, why I can learn from watching my child play with Lego, why I can learn from a big erection (you’re not clicking that link, are you?): because all these things are surprising moments to learn. The only difference is that I’m consciously looking for that.
Our present-not-present students are not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep on challenging their assumptions about what ‘learning’ is and keep on offering them cause to think.
It’s not foolproof, it’s not a comprehensive solution, but it’s a way in.