February 07, 2007

Leaderless classes -idea versus reality

Borderland posted his response to a current meme on leadership. The leadership meme doesn't interest me but this caught my eye:
This is all good in theory, but classrooms don’t often work like this. In the classroom I’d like to be more supportive and less directive (Who wouldn’t!), but those groups are rare. These aphorisms represent little bits and pieces of an ideal.
Not too long ago I realized that my aim in the classroom was to uncover and encourage genuine learning. This is my personal goal, over and above the syllabus and curriculum. The realization was brought on by the usual crap students ask you: "How many times can I be absent (and still pass the course)? How many words do we have to write? How many times have I been absent? Do we have to write in English?", etc., etc. The whines and wiles of people trained in "doing school" as opposed to genuinely learning anything useful.

OK, fine, nice ideal. But then I have to face the questions that inevitably come up: if children are naturally curious (I have four of my own, but if you don't have children, or don't believe this, read John Holt), then what happens to that curiosity and desire to learn in school? And what is or might be stifling that curiosity and promoting this interfering utilitarianism instead?

It was reading JD Hirsch that reminded me, or pointed out to me, an obvious, if unwelcome, truth:
teaching or tutoring an individual child is very different from teaching a class of 20 (or 30 or 40 or 50). It's one thing to understand how human beings learn, but quite another to create a practical, workable curriculum and syllabus for a class of 20 boisterous youngsters. As Gatto points out, it is well known that the tutorial is the best (most effective) teaching method. But how can you have tutorials in a class of 30? It's not impossible, but...

My point is that unfortunately but inevitably, management becomes a large and urgent issue.

It's grading season here in Japan. Lots of papers, some with names missing, some with dates missing (which assignment is this supposed to be?), some names written in kanji,
which I can sometimes read, but not always which means I then have to identify the student via their student number. You get the idea.

No doubt I'm getting crustier as I get older, less patient, but these kinds of minor irritations make me resolve to be much tougher next semester, even if it has little to do with "nurturing genuine learning":
  1. Any assignment or email without a name in Roman characters gets tossed
  2. Any assignment without a date gets tossed
Borderland's quote of the I Ching reminded me of something I came across a while back and would love to explore more (although it's highly unlikely to be of any practical use to me in my teaching situation here in a collectivist society): leaderless teams.

This reminds me of an interesting post Aaron Campbell wrote recently about writing for an audience or to create community. I'm still thinking about that one, too.

3 comments:

S said...

Constraints of the institution of education; aren't they fun.

Great post and I feel for you. I'm about to begin the new semester here in a couple of weeks and will also get all the whining you do. However last semester I started implementing some of the changes you mentioned.

One thing I did for assignments is to have a word template for download telling students exactly where to put name student numbers etc. I also had an automatic field set up for page numbers and word count. It made things a lot easier for me.

EFL Geek said...

The above comment was by me. I didn't realize I was logged in with my gmail account and not the blogger google thing - really a pain in the ass.

aaron said...

Yes Marco, we're working within an established culture that reinforces itself constantly. Working to change that feels like one step forward, two steps backward. Either we enjoy the process of working toward change or just give up altogether, but to actually expect results is only setting us up for frustration and disappointment. If the results come, fine. If they don't come, fine. What's important is our striving to change the institutional culture.

What interests me about this post is how much I recognize my own reactions and responses to being immersed in a similar educational culture. It pushes me to become more authoritarian and directive because that's what students are conditioned to respond to. You see faster "results" that way; the kind of results that uphold the status quo.