What new did your students get out of class today?

This post is a response to Erica’s post on the question what did your students get out of today’s class that they did not have before?

I think that she is completely right to challenge the premise of his question. There is much too much emphasis on “facts” in our educational system, and not enough emphasis on “habits.” “What did students take away from your class?” The only way to answer that simply is to answer with something akin to a “fact.” “They now know that Dostoyevsky is Russian.” “They now know that not everyone can have everything they want.” These are “facts,” and it really does not take very long to learn them.

Is this an important component of education? To a point, yet, but it should be secondary to other issues (below). Here are several things that I was taught in high school:

  1. The Teapot Dome Scandal
  2. The Krebs cycle
  3. How to conjugate the Spanish verb “pagar.”
  4. The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act
  5. Hero’s formula
  6. The name of the male lead character from Wuthering Heights.
  7. Descartes Rule of Signs
  8. The maximum number of electrons in the third shell.

I remember some of these things, but not others. I am guessing that any reader of this list might know a few, but not all. I have a Ph.D., and I think it is clear that I, along with most of the readers of this weblog, am among the best educated people in the history of the world.

So how can I be extremely well-educated, but not remember many of these basic facts from high school (let alone college, when the courses were much more specialized)? I think that this is largely because “facts” are not terribly important in the scheme of things. (So you can probably guess that I am not a big fan of Hirsch, although I do not want to eliminate the content completely).

My opinion is main role of education is to nurture different thinking skills. Among the thinking habits I would like my students to have are:

  1. To value of clear, concise communication.
  2. To value, and use, evidence.
  3. To employ supposition (“what if…”)
  4. To employ empathy (think of things from other people’s points of view–this is different from “sympathy”).
  5. To value and look for connections among different ideas

(as you might guess, I am a fan of Deborah Meier).

Analogies are only somewhat useful (I am trying to get my education students to become aware of this), but here is one: I run almost every day. If you were to ask me, “What did you get out of running today?”, I might not have a good answer. “I got cold,” “My leg muscles might be 0.00001% stronger,” “I had some time to think or listen to a podcast.” Other days I might answer “Absolutely nothing.”

So why run when I get, at best, only tiny bit stronger each time? Well…that’s the only way to get stronger. I might not be able to measure how much stronger I got from that day’s worth of running, but the effects are noticeable over time.

We might not be able to measure how much our students got out of one class, but one semester of a class might make them more likely to provide evidence for an argument. To spend an extra 15 minutes revising a paper so that it is clearer. To be more likely to think about how Afghan’s think of the United States forces in their country (liberators or occupiers?).

After four years of this, we hopefully have a student who has become a lot “stronger” in these areas.

So the fact that I may or may not be able to say, “after today’s lecture, the students should know _____” is not evidence that I am a good teacher, and it is not evidence that I am a bad teacher. I goals like that for the semester: “After the semester, the students will know ____,” but it seems like it would be unwise to interrupt a classes struggle with larger ideas just to inject the mandatory dose of daily facts.

As for “assessment mentality,” I find much of it troubling. I will start by saying that I strongly value assessment, but that I think that it is hard for someone without formal training to do well. What ends up happening is people tend to measure what is easy rather than what is valuable (guess which is easier to assess: facts or habits?). In the process of measuring the easy, less important things, we slowly erode our values. Over time, what is measurable becomes what is important, and we end up ceding control of education to the test administrators.

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2 Responses to “What new did your students get out of class today?”

  1. ericakathryn Says:

    Thanks, Bret. You’ve articulated some things that I didn’t get to in my original post. I agree with you 100%.

  2. When will we ever use math in real life? « Solvable by Radicals Says:

    […] it is worth asking whether mathematics should be taught, but only as part of the larger question: Why do we educate people at all? What are our goals? If mathematics fits into it, great. Otherwise, we should change things. But I […]

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