Vol. 14 : No. 12
The Writings of Guy Bensusan
find ways to turn apparent errors into learning
by Guy Bensusan
If a student enters the course as a beginner and acquires several new levels of abilities, and another comes into the same course as an intermediate, and also acquires an equal number of new ability levels, and a third one does so at an advanced level and performs likewise, upon what principles, precepts or presumptions should they be graded?
Having been in the halls of ivy most of my adult life, I would bet that the usual response would be accompanied by a clearing of the throat, a hand upon the chin, followed by the words, "That would depend on several variables, such as the level of the course, the maturity of the student, and a series of other matters such as the pre-requisites: whether the course was for Liberal Studies or Major, and so forth. It is a highly complex issue, and cannot be given a simple yes or no answer."
If I really push the matter, however, I will get a simple answer. It is: that student number one would not get as high a grade, because he did not get as far as the second, while the third student was the "best." Therefore, the choice would be to give the third student the excellent grade of A, the second one a superior grade of B and give the first one the "average" grade of C. That makes sense to a lot of people, but I thoroughly disagree; I would award all three a grade of A because they each grew significantly from where they began.
To me, any other answer compounds a long-time problem. The student who is farthest ahead to begin with will always have the advantage as long as we think in terms of the amount of information rather than growth. How can less knowledgeable people ever hope to catch up? The system is stacked against them. It is even conceivable that the beginner can work hard and the advanced student merely coast; the disparity in comparative starting points as well as the system will allow only one to be the first and highest. There might be a two-way or three-way tie for first place, but the rest will lose. If there are too many losers for too long, they will find elsewhere to play, which is partly what is happening with declining enrollments now, and the shift to other institutions with different standards.
We are talking about learning, not competing, and we teachers should be leading the way, not fighting the change. Learning is for life, for real life, for all life long, where the results have profound and daily consequences, year after year. Learning is about skills and abilities too, but mostly it is about a path toward wisdom and understanding and not a further reiteration of the past. Based on everything I have learned over the years, I believe growth in learning is the most appropriate consideration. All three students grew, and what matters is that they moved ahead of where they began. Rewarding that assures that further learning will occur; penalize it, and learning will be diminished, depreciated, belittled and stifled.
That is not where we want to go. I would argue that if we are emphasizing learning, learner growth becomes THE ONLY reasonable target, the ONLY sensible course of action for a learner-helping teacher to consider. Why? Because learning cannot happen without learners venturing into the unknown. It takes courage and requires the teacher to engage in careful planning, provide support and give reassurance. The learner learns by trying, guessing, and making mistakes. One way to look at a mistake is as a lesson; another is that it is an error. We are familiar with some responses to error.
"What did you say, Howard, the end of the Mexican Revolution was in 1918? That's not right. I can't believe you said that. Don't you remember, Howard? We just talked about this yesterday! Were you asleep, fella? Now, who among the rest of you can tell us the right answer?"
Several counterproductive blunders are glaringly visible, including the relatively useless direction of the dialogue! In the first place, Howard is unlikely ever to respond aloud again unless asked a direct question by the teacher: and if he feels sufficiently humiliated, might drop the course, and the teacher's action will be well-commented on after class.
Secondly, the rest of the students have seen a demonstration of teacher-power which can be used for stifling learning, because not a single step toward everyone's learning has been taken, either by the question, by the specific and erroneous answer, by the personal indignity toward Howard and its immediate compounding, or by the obvious pleasure-disgust which the teacher has taken in performing this act, as well as the waste of time, effort and backsliding - because whatever gains had been made in learning up to that point have just been lost, and more than lost, pushed backward!
Let us examine the situation where the teacher is conducting a discussion on the Mexican Revolution. Perhaps the first consideration needs to be the purpose of the conversation - is it to help the students learn to interrelate and connect ideas, to help them find ways to contextualize information, to formulate criteria for making choices in selecting responses, or just to see who has memorized some data? I would argue here that the question that was asked was the wrong question to begin with, because the date is arbitrary, and only a general parameter for placing events in some sort of order.
Would it not have been more useful, for instance, for the teacher to set up the learning experience in a different manner?
"Now, the official dates given for the Mexican Revolution are 1910 to 1920, but it is obvious that actions and violence of a revolutionary nature happened both before 1910 and after 1920. So let us see if we can figure out how anyone could offer the dates that are given in the history books. What are some of the ideas or some of the criteria for making the choices which come to mind?"
This is not the same ballgame. We have clearly moved elsewhere! No one is put on the spot, the teacher has established opportunities for interaction, offering initial guidelines and parameters, seeking generalities rather than specifics, opening up opportunities for brainstorming which can lead to constructing a new hypothesis belonging to the entire group working together rather than just to one person.
The teacher is contributing to and facilitating the discussion, not testing for correct answers. This turns the teacher into a fellow learner rather than an authority figure. By creating an open atmosphere in seeking out some generalization, the teacher can then fill in the specifics of names and dates in the process. That way the students gain the benefit of both advances in a safe atmosphere. Moreover, this is learning for the longer term. Whatever is learned by the students in this setting is a transferable idea, a set of principles which will be of use somewhere else, either for a different dynastic reign, social movement or economic era, or for any periodization whose dates require some criteria for their selection.
This kind of learner-helping requires a dissimilar and separate mindset from that of the autocrat, and a different series of developed talents for moderating a learning exploration from that of master of ceremonies at a quiz show. The foundational essence lies in the difference between competing on the one hand and growing, advancing, building and accumulating on the other. It is the old win-lose versus win-win syndrome. In learning, everyone should win, not some win and most lose. There might have been some slight reason for that win-lose tradition back long ago under other conditions, but there is no reason for it now, and if we really are honest about it, its existence back then resulted in undesirable consequences for society.
One can certainly make a case that when we enter the adult world of earning a living, competition exists and must be dealt with. However, if we throw all of the unequal learners into the same competitive pool, how can we hope that the "lesser" ones among them will have any incentive to try and to keep trying? Besides, these are beginners; they need to learn some basics, to practice, to get good enough to compete and then to train before competing. We do not put novices on professional sports-teams, and we require training camps before the season starts; we even wait until the end of training before making selections for the team. Should we not provide beginning-learners with a safe place to learn and practice before making them compete?
When we replace control with facilitation, we turn things around. When you ask for correct answers, the responses tend to be safe ones, exploration ceases. When you instead explore possible relationships, there will be no "wrong" answers, because the questions that might evoke them will not be asked. Instead, the questions will move in different directions, seeking to establish hypotheses, to inquire into connections, to rearrange the usual formulas into other possible resolutions, to evoke productive responses from sharing ideas, offering unusual combinations and working together collaboratively. After all, that is where our current world is headed, into teams and thus into teamwork.
If we consider growth to be the important factor, then the job of the growth-in-learning teacher becomes that of constantly exploring and always turning every activity in and out of the classroom in to a moment of learning. This is a positive act, and it gets to be a habit. Students will pick it up and use it on their own. An attitude will develop, in part because they will go beyond memorization and into relationships and connections that they will always be looking for as they read and study. They will learn it in the classroom by constantly seeing the displays of concepts and components, and by having practiced at every classroom session the art of successful and constructive exploration.
This of course does not mean that the teacher will have nothing to do but stand there and smile, which many critics of the system suggest. One favorite phrase they use is that the professor acts as cheerleader - no, one does not merely stand there waving the arms and yelling Rah! On the contrary, learner helping through moderation is tough, hard work - you cannot merely walk into class unprepared and let the students do the work. You must be thoroughly prepared by having reviewed the assignments the students have read, know exactly where you want to go with your lesson, have pulled out all the necessary models and displays, and refer to them at the appropriate point, and be willing to follow the discussion along the directions that the learners take it while also being able, with deftness and subtlety, to ask the kind of question which will bring it back to where it needs to go.
This kind of classroom functioning requires openness, engagement with ideas, willingness to talk at the students' level while also introducing the necessary vocabulary by slipping it into the conversation unobtrusively and clearly. You must be confident that you will always be sufficiently flexible in your mind to be able to perform the indispensable acts of leading by participating, which are:
1. always take the positive tack, deliver a constructive approach
2. always say and do something to keep the discussion moving along
3. keep throwing in alternative approaches and ideas
4. follow a line until students do well and switch before it dies
5. use word play, a pun, or sudden change of pace, but briefly
6. slip facts in along the way, unobtrusively, as reinforcement
7. behave as a participant rather than a director
8. keep going back to familiar ground and then venture out again
9. indirect questions keep the territory safer
10. acknowledge each contribution, build on it with others
It is less important that you be caught in the act of teaching than that you be constantly exploring ideas as a co-learner, willing to acknowledge that they have provided you with a new thought, connection or perspective. This is not a charade, because while you are still the teacher and always in charge, you are being given to and shared with. When important viewpoints are given you from another gender, race or culture, they broaden your way of seeing how to help those learners.
I cannot tell you how many times a student has mentioned something which I had not previously thought of in that manner or context. The first time it happened, some twenty years ago, I lost my professorial presence, because what the young man said caught me off guard and took me through a mental doorway. I said, "That's great, Steven, as many times as I have gone through this material with students I have never thought of it that way before! Thanks a lot, you have opened up a new insight for me." Was that the right thing to say? Not only was Steve pleased and glowed, but he tried harder! So did others, and contributions to discussion increased.
The fact that other student contributions did not affect me in the same way does not matter - instead, it was the simple recognition of the acknowledgement, the egalitarian atmosphere, the cultivation of comfort in classroom sharing, the courtesy among members of the learning community, and the opening-up of the few who then became willing to help and pull along the remainder - that is what counts. We are creating an ambiance, mood and climate, a place where exploration can safely occur, where ideas can bounce and meld, generate and extend - with no grade book menacingly visible, because that symbolic prop of authority will subvert the freedom of exploration.
The teacher who switches over to this growth emphasis may be a bit uneasy about gaining a departmental reputation of "being a clown" or "playing in the classroom," or of "making hard work too easy" - and while I can personally state that I do not concern myself about what others say, because it is what students say that counts, I also should reiterate that I am sixty-five, have seniority, and continue to receive awards for Learner-Helping (though the actual citation is Teaching) Excellence. Younger teachers may need to remember that part of academic culture lies in pressuring peers into conformity, and if one is worried about that it may hinder one's advancement into Learner Helping.
The principle here is exactly the same as what we have talked about in encouraging exploration and interaction in the classroom, that is, it must be safe and it must be rewarded. Administrators need to learn that if they wish to encourage the transformation of education, they must effectively provide respect, appreciation, support and distinction to those who are working at making the changes. This does not mean to punish those who do not, but it means that leadership must acknowledge the effort and the success in positive ways. When learner-helping becomes safe for the learner-helpers, more of it will take place.
Of course, these generalities do not provide each prospective teacher with a roadmap for moving in this direction, so I now want to describe some of the tactics and strategies which I regularly use in order to keep things moving along in the classroom. First off, I need to tell you that I am only of medium height, can in no way be classified as svelte, am almost bald, and have a full white beard. But, I love to talk, love to play-act and change voices, think that learner-centered teaching is one of the highest callings in the universe, and absolutely cannot wait to get to my classroom every day. Each day is a wonderful challenge filled with fun, productive activity and great reward - and they pay me too!
Until ten years ago, I dressed Western, largely because I lived on acreage outside of town and had livestock. Then, after moving to a home a mile from the university, I began to wear suits and ties! Then I married Gwendolyn, an international costume designer who created authentic period costumes from many cultures for her thirty-inch high porcelain dolls. That fascinated me as a teacher of international arts, and I became her historical researcher. In return, she dressed me in magnificent and colorful ponchos from all over the world. She also created for me a large number of hand-puppets, displays and other props for the classroom.
Therefore, I have a head start - I dress distinctively, have a unique, colorful and very extensive wardrobe, and conduct class in an informal and interactive, learning-centered way with conversation, laughter, inquiry, and bits of theater. From the outset, then, taking a class with Bensusan is known to be definitely different, and students enter with or learn on the first day that what we will be doing will not be traditional. I will also tell them that if they don't seek an adventure in learning as explorers they may need to switch to another course. I also tell them they are in a completely non-competitive situation, that they may go back to revise and improve their work until they turn in their portfolios on the fourteenth week, and will not be labeled with a grade until the end. In addition, I have my endless bags full of tricks which enliven the dreariest of days, when things get slow.
The bag contains a bunch of puppets - all animals, some of them hand-puppets and others on stands. It allows me to put them up on the console far away from me, and interact with the puppet as if it were one of the students, because we have four video cameras in my television network classroom, and it makes for great flexibility. Besides, I am bound and determined that I will succeed in developing long stories of useful thought through interactive conversation, exploring ideas about history, cultural change, relationships and commonalities among the arts, how things came to be the way they are, and so on.
I also have some twenty major visual displays that I can select from, which are carried about in a large artists' portfolio Gwendolyn designed and made for transporting them. She is also a photographer, and has taken photos of all of these, and many other useful pieces for class, which I can use on yet another piece of equipment in my electronic classroom, the Elmo Pad Camera. This is hooked into the huge fifty-plus inch television sets in my classroom and among all of the devices and pieces of equipment plus the fifteen other classrooms at other locations around the state, plus the fact that we have lots of helpers moving and focusing the cameras and adjusting the sound, there is an extraordinary flexibility and number of possible options to work with.
So, imagine it is early (and I love to teach first hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays), and only a few of the students are showing signs of enthusiasm, and I ask a question to get us started, and no one responds. I can make a joke out of it by saying, "Gosh, did none of you see the question mark at the end of my question?" - and meanwhile, I reach into the bag of puppets, and take out an appropriate Koala wearing a Sombrero (because this is a Mexican Arts and Culture course), and I put it over on the console, away from me. A few students perk up, because this is not the usual stuff. Then I will ask the question again, and my cameraman will show me asking the question (since he already knows the routine), and will then switch to the other camera that will now show the puppet, whose name, incidentally, is "Quetzal-koala" (pun intended).
In the teacher's altered voice, the puppet will respond to the question with a solid academic answer, and I will praise the response and ask another question, and the puppet will then say, "Hey Doc, I answered already, give this one to Mary, (or George)." So, I will turn to Mary and say, "What about it, Mary, are you willing to volunteer?" - this gives her an out if she is not ready, because I can always go back to the puppet, and even introduce a second one on the pad camera, so I can play with an historical development of the conquest of Mexico, or the regionality of costume, or whatever, by way of a question and answer, pushing and noodging things along until some of the kids wake up and chime in.
It works even on the worst days during mid-terms, or some other time when students are exhausted and do not really think they can get into it; the give-and-take moves us along where we need to go, and the back-and-forth of responses, even if they are mine, take us in several directions and levels which create the new conditioning in the students which I want to take place. I can create the entire dialogue which I want to have happen by using these devices, by going from one display to the other, by comparing and contrasting and introducing different levels. I do not follow a strict linear pattern here either, of presenting portion number one thoroughly, and then moving on to number three.
On the contrary, I use the arts technique of foreshadowing, of juxtaposition, or playing with proxemics and comparisons-contrasts, and many others, all the time talking away about why we are doing these things, and helping to create in the students the sense of multiplicity of ways of learning and how to do it on one's own. When John or Bertha says something unusual, I try to always use it in a positive way. I will say something like,
"Thanks, John - while that is not what I was thinking of, it certainly is an interesting point. Let's examine it. What are its components? How many parts can we break it into? Where do they lead us if we follow them?
The point is to keep the conversation going, not shutting anyone out, moving along, entering many and various coves and bays, finding out which ones are worth staying in and which are not. Even if you wind up doing most of it yourself, you will have provided a useful learning experience. When it happens to me, I often quip, "Why do I feel like a dentist today?" And if I am a bit stunned by a student response and cannot think of anything else to say (which happens), I can use, "Well, that certainly is one way of looking at it!"
But those are only the rare bad days. Usually the responses come so well and fast that I only have to keep looking at the eyes in front of me, plus the ones on the screen, and simply keep conducting while the musicians play. The first couple of weeks are the slowest, but on the other hand, there are also days when I get the exhilarating feeling that my presence is no longer needed, because the students have done it all and so well. An example is to be found in a chapter called "Hands Along the Border."