July

From Funk's Word Origins,

The Greek word gramma, meaning a "letter," is the foundation of the Greek grammatike techne, the "art of letters." This passed into the Latin language as grammatica, into Old French as grammaire, and so into English as grammar. For several centuries in England, Latin was the language of culture. The educated classes conversed in Latin and their social correspondence was carried on in that language. The word grammar during that period meant nothing but Latin grammer [sic], which was regarded as the most important of all the subjects in the curriculum. Our own grammar schools were so named because one of their chief aims was the teaching of Latin grammar.



Last year, Randall Stross (NY Times) reported on fully self-contained online courses, which may occur some day, thus eliminating most academic positions. It's not clear how students would fare, as the drop-out rate in online (not fully self-contained) is well known. Yet, I wonder about criticism that places the instructor at the center of the learning process, for example:

Wendy Brown, the Heller professor of political science at the Berkeley campus, spoke witheringly of the idea at a campus forum in October: “What is sacrificed when classrooms disappear, the place where good teachers do not merely ‘deliver content’ to students but wake them up, throw them on their feet and pull the chair away? Where ideas can become intoxicating, where an instructor’s ardor for a subject or a dimension of the world can be contagious? Where scientific, literary, ethical or political passions are ignited?”

There are several problems with this criticism. One is that it must assume that the percentage of professors who are so "good" as to produce such an intoxicating effect is considerable. In my own schooling, I don't remember such an effect—which is to be expected. Much has been made of the priority of research over teaching at major universities. As cited in the Time to Decide paper by Nature, Tadamitsu Kishimoto, former president of Osaka University stated,

“Research brings in prestige, grant money, and prizes. Everything in your career here at my university is evaluated by what you have done with your research,” he notes. “Here, researchers in the prime of their careers must not teach. They do not have time for education.”

That is, they don't devote time to study teaching. And why should they when

Teaching counts significantly less than does research (Schultz, Meade, & Khurana, 1989, cited in Tang & Chamberlain)

So, the average professor simply teaches the same way that their professors did. In other words, they simply lecture, which is seldom inspiring.

The second problem is the assumption that teaching skill relies upon the ability to ignite passion. Certainly, teachers can motivate students, as well as have deadening effects on student learning. Yet passion suffices for teaching skill no more than it does for research skill.

Although a "good" professor can trigger a desire to learn, it's delusional to believe that the majority of professors are that "good" and that any passion continues past the influence of particular instructors.

Passion is like candy: Momentarily pleasurable, but unable to sustain one's endeavor for any length of time. Like any skill (or art), to learn and to improve one's teaching takes sustained effortful study, which is maintained through a steady diet of autonomy and tasks challenging one's competence.

Thus, rather than trying to "ignite" students, courses need to be designed so that students are

  • given clear goals,
  • challenged,
  • given feedback at frequent intervals, and
  • provided appropriate levels of autonomy.

In this way, students will be self-motivated to learn as they see their competence improving.

See also

Passion: A Deceptive Concept
Creating Passionate Learners
Student Passion and Course Requirements