Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Nonaggression Pact in Reverse

I guess most college professors have heard about the college teaching version of the nonaggression pact. The teacher sends subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages to the students: “I’m a very busy person. I won’t challenge you to do much if you’ll leave me alone. I won’t expect much of you so you shouldn’t expect much of me.” Obviously, this attitude leads to grade inflation and a mediocre (at best) educational experience.

It would be interesting to give college teachers truth serum and ask them what they think of this approach. My guess is that a lot of people are appalled by it but I would bet that a significant number would shrug and suggest “that’s just what college education is like.” The nonaggression pact has been around for a long time now. In 2010, I sometimes think we see so little truly exceptional education that we don’t even know that it exists. It is hard to strive for beauty if you have never experienced it. Acceptance of the nonaggression pact reduces the chance of experiencing education at some wonderfully high level.

At your university, what percentage of the classes are much better than mediocre? What percentage would you judge as a wonderful experience?

How can we change this trend? What is the reverse of the nonaggression pact? I would suspect that it would sound something like this: “I’m a very busy person. However, your education is important and I am going to challenge every person in this class to succeed. All of you. That means you can expect me to be very well prepared for every class and you have the right to come by my office and get help if you need it; I will help you to succeed.”

The question is not about the first three sentences. The question is about the last sentence. But, it is the important one. Teachers often challenge students. That’s easy to do. That challenge is a hollow one, and the students recognize that, if the teacher is not willing to back it up with some effort.

I often say “you cannot challenge a student to leap tall buildings in a single bound if you are not willing to do the boring stuff involved with helping them to learn to fly.”

If you have read this blog for long, you know I often tell my students that a class is like a dance: they do half of the work and I do half of the work and together we can create something that is wonderful. But, both sides have to do their half. Otherwise, it all falls apart.

Here’s my suggestion. Push up your 50 percent to a higher level. Be better prepared. Think more about your classes and your teaching. Encourage your students to come by and see you more often for assistance. Spend a bit longer grader tests and writing notes on their papers.

Student change won’t come immediately but I believe that you will find that, over time, they will begin to push up their 50 percent also. In a dance, someone has to lead. In a class, someone has to lead and it ought to be the teacher. If one dancer starts working harder, the other person often responds accordingly. Don’t ask the students to increase their 50 percent first. That won’t work—you are the leader. Push up your 50 percent and see if you are not impressed by the response you get.

(HAPPY FATHER’S DAY)

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