Sunday, 31 January 2016

Consumerist Learning

I tried carrots, sticks and begging. I offered repeated hands-on opportunities with thousands of dollars of equipment (that I maintain just for their use), access to the latest industry standard training methods and information, flexible deadlines, and just about everything else imaginable. We're at semester's end and I'm exhausted trying to get students to take an active role in their learning.

As consumerist thinking gets more deeply embedded in our culture more and more students think I'm some kind of educational store clerk who isn't doing a good job of serving them. The only relationship they can understand me having with them in the classroom is that of an employee. This isn't only a student perception. Many of the powers that be would love to see a de-professionalization of the teaching profession (it's cheaper!). This is a current social trend.

Disaffected students looking to control how I assess them fall into two camps: the risk averse academic and an exciting new kind of student: the five-oh (a term coined by seniors at my school for a student who is aiming for a grade in the forties because they know it'll be rounded up to a pass). You don't have to do an awful lot to get a mark in the forties. You can miss weeks of class, not hand in major assignments and fail tests but still pull off a forty. You also tend to do a wonderful job of poisoning a classroom when this is your approach.

What drove me around the bend this week was several of these poisonous five-oh's approaching me to complain about their term grade. One seventeen year old who had missed three weeks of class and failed to hand in multiple unit summatives, all while playing games on the class PC and ignoring instruction even when he was there, approached me to demand an explanation for his terrible grade. It was somehow my fault that he categorically refused to do anything useful. I suggested we look at his participation in the current group-study project for the final exam. He hadn't even signed up for it - he is nothing if not consistent. I told him something that's as much a survival mechanism for me as it should be a consolation for him:  

"look, you don't care. You seem to be OK with that, and I can live with it too, but not if you're going to come up here whining about grades you haven't earned. The grade you have is charity, but you come up here demanding more. If you'd have put in any kind of effort at all I'd be doing back-flips trying to help you, but you didn't, and you still aren't. Your grade is reflection of your terrible work ethic. I don't know what you know, but what I've seen suggests it isn't much. That's also a result of your work ethic. Are we done here?"

It turns out we were done there.

Less bothersome because they don't actively work to dismantle the entire learning apparatus of education is the risk-averse academic. I've run into 'you don't teach properly' frustrated student thinking before. This is inevitably spouted by a relatively successful student who has been taught to be a passive consumer of learning in an overly structured and systemic classroom. These students tend to be academic kids who have figured out the game, and like the five-oh, they are looking to exploit it while doing as little as possible themselves. You give me pointless, linear, obvious information, I consume it then regurgitate it for you. You think I'm very smart and give me an 'A'.

Marking exams the other day I came across just such a 'you didn't teach us anything', they got this in the response section:

"I didn't really teach you?  I have provided you with gigs and gigs of material and thousands of dollars of hands on equipment in an environment designed to support everyone from experienced to brand new learners. If you think learning is someone putting ideas in your head you've misunderstood learning (telling people what to think is indoctrination). You learn when you internalize information, and that happens best when you are the one discovering it.  You can't own knowledge you haven't earned.  Learning isn't a handout, you're not a passive consumer of learning, it's an active endeavour on the part of the student.  If you're waiting for someone else to tell you what to think, you aren't learning anything at all."

This is a relatively successful student who refused to make mistakes and sat there passively, waiting for clarity. Clarity means getting concise, linear directions that make clear a pointless exercise (so you can follow the pattern and get an 'A'). Guess what his parents do for a living? Yep, they're teachers. Fortunately for him (if not for learning
Thank goodness 'tech millionaires' (the same people
who have monetized your attention) have a solution
to one of the last non-economic human relationships
left in Western culture (I bet it involves monetizing
the teacher-student relationship somehow!)
itself), he'll find many teachers more than happy to play the game with him. 

I encourage and reward failure and admire brave attempts at understanding stochastic processes that defy easy description. I guess I'm a nightmare of a teacher.

Between the insidious five-ohs and the ever-so-smart risk-aversers, I'm exhausted.  I'd day dream (as other high school teachers do) about teaching in post secondary, but this consumerist thinking has infected it too, with helicopter parents demanding to know what they're paying for when their university child (in their twenties) gets a low grade.  I'd prefer to teach high school anyway, you get to help a student find their way from the ground up.  When it works it's very rewarding.

You'd think that teaching an optional subject like computer technology would get you out of the five-oh infection, but thanks to guidance dropping kids into a class they have no background in just to fill up their time tables, and the five-ohs themselves seeking out courses that they think will be easy (computer engineering?  that's video games, right?), I've had a rough semester.  The next one doesn't look much better since I've already found half a dozen students parachuted into senior computer engineering classes without the required requisite (computer engineering?  that's playing video games, right?).

I've spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of my own time getting comp-tech certified as a teacher and building a department up. This year is the first time I'm teaching a full schedule of computer-technology courses, but half way through it I find myself wishing I'd never left teaching English. I thought that teaching computer technology (a passion I've had since I was a child) would be thrilling, a chance to help other kids like I was develop into capable engineers and technicians, but between risk averse passivity and the rising tide of learning poisonous five-ohs, I'm left gasping for air.