Posted by: Serena | 12th Jul, 2007

Progress and Butterflies

I had one of those weird dreams the other night. You know the kind–the ones that happen right as you’re waking up, and it takes you a few minutes to sort out what’s real and what isn’t. I rolled over in bed and saw huge butterflies with black and dark violet wings fluttering around my room. Some of them were on the ground, dying, and some were still in the air, but just seemed to be waiting for their turn. Eventually I realized that there weren’t really butterflies in my room.

I think I’m unraveling a little at the edges.

My script, while not polished, is done. I’m filling in camera directions now. Its evolution was interesting, and it’s not at all what I thought it would be. I think I like it. (We’ll see if I still like it after I get some sleep for the first time in over 48 hours.)

There’s something that’s really been bothering me, but I’m not sure why. It struck me the other day that as wonderful as “real learning” seems,  and as worthwhile our ideas for a better educational system are, there’s still a major flaw. I’ve always believed fervently that if a school is structured around learning and independent study, with teachers guiding rather than spoon-feeding, students would automatically be more interested, passionate, and enthusiastic. On Tuesday night, only one student had done the entire reading. The rest of us, for whatever reasons, were simply not prepared for class. The structure of this course is exactly what I’ve always thought of as an excellent model for an educational system. So what went wrong? I don’t think it’s that we’re not motivated. I didn’t do the reading. I should have. I have no valid excuse. Does that mean that I just don’t care? Does it mean I don’t care enough? I don’t think it’s that either, because I care immensely and I am loving everything about this course.

But, inadvertently, we’ve exposed the flaw of all that lovely discussion on Monday. Even if a system is perfect in every way, things like this are going to happen occasionally. It’s an inherent risk. Does that mean it’s not our fault? Of course not. It’s not a problem of motivation, it’s a problem of seriousness. Allowing students to direct their own learning can be a wonderful thing, but what that means is that they only really answer to themselves. They’re working for themselves, not for anyone else, and that means that there’s a risk that they’ll occasionally let themselves down unless they remain completely disciplined.

This can be very disheartening for the teacher, especially since there is no good explanation that can be offered. But perhaps it’s good if this kind of let-down occurs at least once during a course, because it can function as a wake-up call. We don’t want to let the teacher down, and we especially don’t want to let ourselves down. All an instructor can do at this point is have faith in the students, and hope that they’ll learn from such an experience, and begin to approach the course with even more passion and commitment than before. Do you think that’s too much to hope?

I’ve never been a college professor, but I can only imagine that hope constitutes an enormous amount of the job.

Don’t give up on us yet.

Responses

[…] Original post by arynna […]

Serena,

I had the same experience more often than I’d care to count last year in my First Year Seminar. Ask Shannon, she was in it. I counted on the students to read along, but didn’t test them on it per se. Over time, as the explicit (i.e. graded) demands of other classes increased, it seemed like the students did less and less work for the course. It was as if they had too much freedom. The students said they liked the freedom and felt bad when they didn’t do the work, but the bottom line is they didn’t take responsibility and do the work. I haven’t given up though. I’m going to tinker with the format for this year, perhaps using Gardner’s APGAR on a regular basis.

I think it’s funny to look at this under the lens of organizational behavior. What was it specifically about this reading that disengaged the students?

Was it sheer coincidence that the entire class, except for one, failed to do the reading? I somehow doubt it. It’s an interesting example of how a group of people behaviorally tip when exposed to a certain stimuli. It’d be a great question for discussion as a class, especially in the context of this course, which is largely experimental.

Maybe the entire class got totally sloshed the night before though, and just didn’t do it on general principle. I don’t know.

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