Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Intellectual risk vs. regurgitation

Following up on yesterday’s post, here’s a short excerpt from The Hidden Curriculum—the much more interesting one, from 1971, by Benson Snyder:
I observed the professor in one class beginning the term by explaining that the students were expected to be creative and involved; in short, they were to be engaged. They would have the opportunity to take intellectual risks, to make mistakes. When I talked with the students in the class I discovered that many were quite surprised by his introductory statement; a few were puzzled and suspicious, others enthusiastic.

Five weeks later the first quiz was given. The students found that they were asked to return a large amount of information that they could only have mastered by memorization. There was a considerable discrepancy between the students’ expectations for the course and what they were in fact expected to learn in order to pass the quiz. In spite of the professor’s opening pronouncements, the hidden but required task was not to be imaginative or creative but to play a specific, tightly circumscribed academic game.

The consequences for the students varied: some became cynical and said, “Okay, if that’s the way you play the academic game, if that’s what he really wants, I won’t make the same mistake again. Next time I’ll memorize the key points.” Some students were discouraged and simply withdrew emotionally from the class, though they nominally remained in attendance and received satisfactory grades. But a large group approved the quiz. They had been apprehensive about their capacity to do original work and were relieved to find that rote memory would suffice to get a superior grade. Students of this latter group were, interestingly, the least likely to consult the college psychiatrist.
Assuming Snyder’s basic description here is accurate, what do you make of this passage? On the one hand, it seems possible that the professor wanted to encourage the students to be creative and take intellectual risks in addition to mastering the information, not in lieu of it. On the other hand, that kind of performance is pretty rare, so maybe the grades did all come down to regurgitation in the end. Should the professor just have made himself clearer, or was there (as Snyder seems to imply) a larger problem than that?


Karen W said...

I think there probably is a larger problem, in that taking risks includes the possibility of failure. With grades (and your GPA) on the line, a student can pay a pretty steep price for a risk gone wrong. (Lose a scholarship, look less attractive to grad programs or employers etc.) I guess professors who genuinely want students to take intellectual risks would either need to do away with grades altogether or have a generous do over policy.

ML said...

I can actually see this from both sides, and in my opinion the schism arises from the impossibility of accessing qualities like creativity and original thinking, and EVERYBODY, apparently, wants there to be assessment. ("a large group [of students] approved the quiz") My dad was a teacher at an art school for 35 years and he mentions that in the late 60s and 70s there was a real push to do away with grades, not just at his school, but many schools, because people saw them as reductive and urged the benefits of encouraging the more personal, playful, soulful aspects of human endeavor. According to him, the students as much as anyone, were responsible for bringing grades back, as we left the 'hippie' era and got serious. Students, it turns out, LIKE to be assessed, to be quantified, to be compared (probably because, as is intimated in the article, it removes some of the anxiety of relying on self-worth), and you simply can't do that in any satisfactory way if you're judging vagaries like 'creativity' or 'imagination'.

Which leads to the larger trend of 'data-driven' everything, for which we can thank the billowing clouds of data emerging like exhaust from our expanding technologies. It's hard to ague against a data-driven (rhymes with 'scientific') approach, whether it's to our education system or our national healthcare, or our personal healthcare, and yet, there's no question that something, big, is getting lost. It's hard to pinpoint, hard to advocate, it's elusive, but I for one am sorry to see it go.

Doris said...

The biggest undergrad growth area in the university English department where I teach is the creative writing track. Or, at least, that's what many of our prospective majors express a desire to study.

So, who knows, maybe the end result of No Child Left Behind will be a revitalization of poetry and the publication of the next Great American Novel.

Chris said...

I have mixed feelings about this, too. I think most teachers (whether college or K-12) would genuinely appreciate a certain kind of intellectual risk-taking in their students, so I don't see this professor as hypocritical. But I think it's unrealistic to expect students to throw themselves into a course in that way when they're being made to take four or five courses at a time. It's also unrealistic, as Karen points out, to deny that grades do matter, so any risk has real downsides.

I sometimes point out to my own (law) students that, if we didn't give grades, they almost certainly would have gone to a different law school -- because employers wouldn't know what to make of our graduates, and thus our ranking would sink, etc. It's very hard to take the "sorting" function out of education, even if you want to. It has a momentum of its own, which I why I feel some sympathy for the professor described in this excerpt.

Interesting that the creative writing track is so popular. Doris -- what's your theory about why?