Balance Scale

A Dichotomy and Its Dangers: A Ramble

Balance Scale

By The original uploader was AntonyB at French Wikipedia. – Photo personnelle de ma collection, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In our meeting on Wednesday, Jackie brought up the old saw “better a guide on the side than a sage on the stage.” While I understand the valid intent of her comment and do recognize the context of Jackie’s use of the phrase (it was a comment on the changes in teaching strategies since I was an undergraduate back when we chiseled on stone tablets), it started me thinking about the dangers of relying on balance scales–dangers that apply, by the way, to our political discussions (just what is this right-center-middle thing, anyway?) as well as education.

As one who tends to look to the old before the new, a lot of my philosophy of teaching also remains mired in conclusions drawn by those who were involved, for example, with teaching machines in the 1950s and early 1960s. Most of these people eventually moved away from machine learning in favor of face-to-face instruction, leading to things like the Keller Method and Mastery, where elements of what had been learned through work with teaching machines were retained even though the machines were moved from the center of the process. These teachers recognized that there was no either/or, that you keep what works instead of worrying about what seems, for the moment, to outweigh whatever has been defined, at the time, as the “other.” Fred Keller himself wanted to mix things up, using lectures, multimedia, pairings of students (advanced with those still struggling) within a physical framework expanded from traditional classrooms and offices. He wasn’t claiming weight for any one thing or lightening the value of any other. He was trying, to put it into games-theory parlance, to create a win-win situation.

I used to think, so indoctrinated was I by the 1980s in neo-Freire pedagogy, that there is no room for the lecture in effective teaching. That’s strange, in retrospect, for I had loved nothing more than a good lecture in my own undergraduate years, avoiding classes based on discussion as nothing more than the ignorant talking to the ignorant. But I was wrong. A good lecture in a face-to-face environment with an audience of modest size is an invigorating part of educational strategy, even though it is not a complete strategy. Now, please understand: By lectures, I don’t mean asking students to watch TED Talks or steering them to MOOCS. Those do not have the direct interaction between speaker and listener that makes a lecture successful. And I don’t mean 75 minutes of professorial rambling.

B. F. Skinner once pointed out that no lecture segment of a class can be effective if it lasts too long. Fifteen minutes or so for any activity that doesn’t have students actively participating is probably the limit. I must admit that I often get so enamored of my brilliance that I continue on when I shouldn’t and put my students to sleep–but I’m trying to rein in my excesses and keep variety the center of each session’s lesson.

A long time ago, I realized that I can’t assume that my students are motivated to learn. I know, that’s a “duh”  for the rest of you, but I had been misled by people who had read Freire too briefly and who had decided that we teachers should simply support student efforts, letting them lead while we act as a quartermaster corps. Since then, I have come to my senses, realizing that we also need to be motivators and, yes, even cheerleaders. What I had been taught was an either/or was, in fact, a false and unnecessary limitation constraining learning and teaching.

Which brings me to something else: When I began teaching at City Tech as an adjunct, Lord, 18 years ago, the pervasive attitude of faculty toward students was, in terms of student intellectual capacity and preparation for college, dismissive. We’ve come a long way since then, but I do still hear faculty say that, for example, we can’t expect much from our students because they read at an elementary-school level. I suspect, however, that these teachers don’t really even understand what it means to say that. Not only are they not specialists in evaluating reading levels but they are showing little awareness of the complexities of literacy. They are leading with that old cliche, the tyranny of low expectations.

Some of us still wail about standards and grade inflation; I tell my students each semester that my dream is a class where each student earns an A. Only then would I be able to flatter myself, telling me I am a great teacher. Only when I can bring each student, no matter their starting point, to excellence will I feel that I, too, am excellent. I know: given the realities of educational situations, this is not possible, but I am not going to lay the fault for it at the feet of the students. That becomes too easy a way for me to lapse into laziness.

Here, too, as a matter of fact, the idea of balance can impede us. If I give one student an A, I should give another an F. The class is only truly balanced (and standards met) when everything averages out to C. We have teachers who address themselves only to the students in the front row, to the students enthusiastic for the course. The others are considered so much dross, their low grades balancing out the superlatives earned by the others. Here again, we need to ditch the either/or, concentrating on the both.

Enough. What I have written here, as you have realized by now, is neither new nor earth-shaking. It is simply what I need to say to myself every once in a while. I share it with you in that light.

As I have been talking and writing about Quakers recently in this group, I leave you with one of their thoughts, from the elders at Balby in 1656: “Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

2 thoughts on “A Dichotomy and Its Dangers: A Ramble

  1. Robert Lestón

    That’s a beautiful quote, and it, along with the rest of the post, serves as an important reminder. I share your appreciation for the lecture and I think a lot of others do as well. Toni is currently going to, as Carrie calls it, “principle school,” and her current course is run by a gentleman who runs a teacher-centered class. This is interesting as his whole style goes against the grain of the entire DOE. The thing is that he goes on for the entire day (8 am to 4 pm), droning on and on endlessly. If there is anything enlightening concerning leadership or education it gets drowned out by the rest. Clearly, such a style can’t work. An audience has its limits afterall. On the other hand, a lecture, when it comes from the right source, is planned for, well thought out, delivered with eloquence, and used strategically, can be an inspiration. Being conscientious and reflective about our own practices to become better teachers is the thing. Certainly we should use whatever tools we have at our disposal, of which there are many.

  2. Jackie Blain

    Aaron and Robert, I couldn’t agree more with both of you. And for clarity sake, I’d just like to add that my comment was meant to warn against being too reliant on any one pedagogy, be it guide on the side or sage on the stage. What I was trying to say is that we’ve become so reliant on filling up silence — and getting freaked out when students don’t talk or play along — that we’ve ignored some tools, including the lecture. One of the best instructors I had as an undergrad was this lunatic prof of history whose field was Ancient Rome. It was a class of 400+ students, and we were in thrall the entire class period, not only because he had a speech tic where he essentially honked every third word, but because he was so compelling as a lecturer. I learned an enormous amount even though by today’s “standards” I would have been considered a passive learner. I, too, think lectures are a tool we definitely should have; I use it often, especially when I’m introducing something very new, usually followed by a student activity to re-enforce what I’ve laid out. My point is that we shouldn’t ignore all the tools, even the ones that aren’t currently in favor. As with anything in life, too much of one thing can be counterproductive, no matter which side we come down on. I’m glad my random smart-aleck remark prompted these posts — it’s something as teachers that we need to bring to the surface now and again.

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