Stop Curving! Stop Lecturing! Stop Grading! Start Teaching So We Can Start Learning!

Two weeks ago my genetics class received the results of our second test.  The class average was a 48, and to my amazement, our professor, whom I will refer to as Dr. James decided to curve the test by 29 points, consequently raising the class average to a low C.  In response to what I consider to be “the easy way out” and a great dereliction of duty by a professional educator, I sent him the following e-mail,

I am contacting you now to express concern over your curving of our second test by 29 points.  Now I have no illusions about why you curved this test so drastically.  It was certainly not for our benefit, because if one goes by the standard of us learning the material than curving the test by 29 points does nothing for us.   If the class average is a 48 with little most people doing poorly and failing, then it is your responsibility as a professional educator to critically interrogate your teaching methods and pedagogy and find out what is going wrong and involve us in that discussion.  Curving the test 29 points is his easy way out.  School is not a marketplace for grades, and that should not be how the teacher views his or her job.  Just because curving is common, does not mean that it is proper.   I am aware of the fact that there is probably not one other student in the class who minds you curving a test so drastically and actually welcomes it.  But that is only because we have been socialized by the college and more generally the American school culture to covet grades more than real learning.  That is not our fault.  It is the fault of the American obsession with grading, multiple choice style testing regimes which encourage this unethical and ultimately self-serving practice.  Could it be possible that instead of interrogating your own teaching methods and pedagogy to find out where you could have possibly gone wrong for the entire class to perform so poorly, that you proceeded to choose the easy way out?  I ask you is that the mark of good educational practice?  I am sure you are aware of the recent cheating scandal in Atlanta in which 35 former school officials including the former Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly Halll, have been accused of inflating student test scores in order to continue to get funding and lavish cash bonuses.  Minus a few technicalities and the fact that I don’t believe you are getting any special funding, how is his practice of curving our grades so drastically any different from what has happened in Atlanta.  Per my desire to become a different kind of educator once I enter the teaching profession, I read a lot about critical pedagogy, constructivism, and postformal educational psychology.  I want to share with you a passage from the book, Students as Researchers : Creating Classrooms That Matter. by the architect of postformal educational psychology, Joe Kincheloe. 

“Viewing cognition as a process of knowledge production presages profound changes in education. Teachers who frame cognition in this way see their role as creators of situations where student experiences could intersect with information gleaned from various bodies of information. In contrast, if knowledge is viewed as simply an external body of information independent of human beings, then the role of the teacher is to take this knowledge and insert it into the minds of students. Evaluation procedures that emphasize retention of isolated bits and pieces of data are intimately tied to this view of knowledge. Conceptual thinking is discouraged, as schooling trivializes learning. Students are evaluated on the lowest level of human thinking— the ability to memorize, the ability to follow directions. Thus, unless students are moved to become knowledge producers who connect such information with their own lives, schooling will remain merely an unengaging rite of passage into adulthood.”

This is the problem with the traditional lecture style pedagogy that nearly all teachers at this school, including you, employ. But it is especially prevalent in the biology department.  Its amazing to me that educators are so willing to ignore, in their teaching methods, the psychological underpinnings for how human beings actually learn and construct knowledge.  These classes should not be about covering the greatest amount of information in the shortest amount of time.  It should not be about students memorizing and spitting back seemingly disconnected bits of information.  That’s not learning , and all of that information is inevitably forgotten.  What value does this form of pedagogy have to the learner?  Sure, it’s the easiest way for a professor to go about the business of teaching, if you want to even call it “teaching” because in the words of Brazillian educator and critical pedagogy theorist Paulo Freire “There is no teaching without learning.” but doing things the easy way should never be the motivation here.   I don’t mean any disrespect or malice.  But as a student, I think I should be concerned with the quality and rigor of my and my fellow student’s education.

I expressed these concerns to the Chair of the Biology Department, and asked why pedagogies never seem to change.  I think students have been conditioned throughout their school careers to think that this is what education is and what it will always be, and that is why they never raise concerns.  They are not aware that education could be so much more than it is right now, and actually be emancipatory, critical, joyous, and rigorous at the same time.  They are not aware that we should be fighting for it, and as long as they are not aware nothing will ever change.  A lot of that lack of awareness rests with the type of pedagogy that you employ.  I am only aware because I had one great Philosophy of education teacher back in junior year who opened my eyes to the theoretical underpinnings behind my frustration with school.  Now I devour as much educational philosophy and theory as I possibly can in the hopes of being a better educator once I enter the teaching workforce.  Without him, I would be lost right now.  The Chair of the Biology Department told me that changing pedagogies is a very slow process.  If that is indeed true, what are the forces holding you back?

Yesterday Dr. James and I met to discuss my concerns.  He appreciated the strong and passionate tone and subject of my correspondence and the conversation was cordial, respectful, and candid.  That being said, I left our meeting feeling overwhelmingly despondent and defeated.  On the subject of curving, he admitted that he was very uncomfortable adding 29 points to all of our scores, and agreed that treating a class merely as a marketplace for grades does great harm to the learning process.  I was even surprised to hear from him that some students, though not in our class, had expressed their desire to learn the material without curving.  Nonetheless, curving is just a mere symptom of the more systemic problem here which is the dominance of traditional lecture-style pedagogy coupled with the proliferation of multiple-choice style testing regimes.  On these two matters, it was quite a bit more difficult for the two of us to reach any sort of consensus.  I got the feeling that even though Dr. James wanted to employ varying assessment strategies and teaching pedagogies to get students more engaged in the material, he just did not know how to go about doing this.  Of course he did not say this overtly, but once he told me what I would call his ” inadequate and instant gratification solution” to the problem, I knew that there was no possibility of this professor thinking outside the box to improve his teaching practice.  His great solution was to assign us more word problems from the end of each chapter.  Need I even explain the inadequacy of this “quick fix”?  Obviously, to commit to a change to changing one’s pedagogy takes quite a bit of effort and foresight and I do not expect our class to really change in any substantial way this semester, but knowing what I know about why student’s hate this class and more generally the dominance of lecture-style teaching in the biology department at Felician College, it doesn’t help anyone to only be concerned about my own education.  I am genuinely concerned for the future.  As the department chair said when I first voiced my concerns to him, Whether or not he changes his grading and testing policies at this point in the semester, I cannot say. However, your input will probably help to change that in future semesters.”  Coming out of our meeting, I seriously doubt that and here’s why.

Just like most university professors, Dr. James holds an advanced degree in his field which happens to be genetics.  As all seasoned college students know, that expertise does not automatically translate to sound teaching practice.  Teaching is an art, and it requires not just knowledge about one’s subject area but also knowledge about teaching.  Our higher education system should require prospective college professors to go through the same formal teacher training and obtain teaching certificates just as elementary and high school teacher candidates.  Right now, most states require high school teachers without a master’s degree (MAT) to earn one after certification.  This requirement should also be extended to university professors.  I am not entirely sure why, but the role of the college professor as a mere lecturer has absolutely taken over the American university culture.  Its the only role that most of our professors expect themselves to fill, and consequently it’s what most of us students expect of our professors.  Dr. James sees himself primarily as a lecturer, and consequently he finds it very difficult to imagine himself being anything more than that. That needs to change.  “Teacher” and “lecturer” are not synonyms and never will be.

Now I recognize that just because Dr. James would be required to earn a masters degree in teaching and obtain a professional certificate in order to become a college professor, that does not automatically mean he would cease to be a lecturer.  Teacher education programs in America tend to emphasize methods over theory in the classes that they offer.  The course content of the teacher education program at Felician College exemplifies this problem perfectly.  One philosophy of education course is all that is required for students to get their Bachelors in Education.  The rest are methods courses ranging from “Secondary School Science Methodologies” to “Secondary Social Studies With Field Component” to “Reading in the Content Area”.  Now I am not saying that these methods courses are unimportant and indeed they are necessary to have in the course sequence.  What I am saying is that more often than not, their course objectives fail to stress the relationship between theory and facts, consequently falling into the behaviorist trap of ignoring questions of educational ends and goals.  These questions include, “My students are doing well, but what is the value of what they are doing?” “Why is this knowledge being learned?” or, “Why is this particular pedagogy being used to transmit information in the classroom?” “Why this assessment?” even “Why are we doing what we are doing?”  As college students mired in the oppression of traditional lecture-style pedagogy and multiple choice testing regimes, we ask these questions seemingly everyday to ourselves, to our classmates, and hopefully to our professors as well.  The problem lies in the fact that, in these methods courses, prospective educators are not taught to ask these questions of their own practice.  In other words, theory would allow Dr. James to understand how the way in which he defines knowledge informs his practice and ultimately hurts his students.  Dr. James believes that knowledge is a series of fragmented and isolated facts and processes privileged by the teacher and transmitted to the students by way of their passive listening, what Paulo Friere calls the “Banking” system of education,

[Under the banking system, the teachers views his purpose] as to fill the students with the contents of his narration–contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance.  Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity.] (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed”)

Now, as a student I want you to compare your experience of the two and half hour college lecture, to Friere’s bleak and rather uninspiring description of the “Banking” system.  You are the object.  Your professor is the subject.  He acts on you, sharing his stores and stores of disparate facts, definitions, theories, laws, and processes while you sit in quiet and unassuming submission trying desperately to copy down every little thing you think you’ll need to know for the next test.  Perhaps he’s using a powerpoint or smartboard technology, perhaps he just talks, or perhaps he makes use of the chalkboard.  But these are relatively trivial matters compared to what a real change in pedagogy would mean for the learning process.  Switching back and forth between any of these modes of information transmission won’t make the class any more engaging, any more purposeful, and more empowering and emancipatory. The point is you can not wait to get out of there, and even though the reasons why aren’t clear to your professor, they remain obvious to you.  Your voice is silenced.  Your subjectivity and individuality is ignored and rendered irrelevant to the learning process, despite the fact that it can never be so.  Words and ideas are disconnected from their larger societal implications.  Any capacity for critical thinking and the potential for knowledge to be liberating, emancipatory, and empowering is squashed under a regime of rote memorization and recall.  Superficial learning is the name of the game.  Knowledge goes about as far as filling in A, B, C, D, or E on a Scantron sheet.  The life cycle or more appropriately what I would call the death cycle of a trash can is the perfect metaphor for how you feel.  Knowledge gets tossed in, stays a while until the next exam, gets emptied out, and the process just repeats itself over and over and over again.  What is the solution to making college professors realize the blatant inadequacy of what Henry Giroux calls this “learn more and suffer” approach to education.  Michael Apple, Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, makes his case that,

[Prospective educators need to be taught to] examine critically not just “how a student acquires more knowledge” (the dominant question in our efficiency minded field) but “why and how particular aspects of the collective culture are presented in school as objective, factual knowledge.”  How, concretely, may official knowledge represent ideological configurations of the dominant interests in a society?  How do schools legitimate these limited and partial standards of knowing as unquestioned truths?  These questions must be asked of at least three areas of school life: (1) how the basic day-to-day regularities contribute to students learning these ideologies; (2) how the specific forms of curricular knowledge reflect these configurations; and (3) how these ideologies are reflected in the fundamental perspectives educators themselves employ to order, guide, and give meaning to their own activity. (as cited in Giroux, 1988, p. 46)

I want to take the groundwork that Apple lays out here for critically analyzing the knowledge presented in a classroom and use it to examine the knowledge presented in Dr. James genetics course.  First, Apple refers to how the “basic day-to-day regularities” of the classroom, otherwise known as the hidden curriculum contributes to students learning certain “unstated norms, values, and beliefs.  Within the parameters of Dr. James traditional lecture style, “banking” approach to teaching and learning, the hidden curriculum works its magic in rather insidious ways.  Dr. James uses a lot of images, diagrams, and concept maps from the textbook in his teaching.  Often, rather than making eye contact with his class, he lectures  while continually staring at these diagrams.  Incredibly enough, he will sometimes teach for long periods of time with his back facing us making it seem like he is talking more to himself than to us.  One often gets the sense that he is unprepared for a lesson before he enters class, because, he is constantly trying to negotiate the meaning of these diagrams in the classroom.  For example, he will be looking at a diagram and then suddenly say, “This looks wrong” and then stare at it for five or ten minutes trying to figure what he thinks is wrong.  I recall one instance where he spent more than half the class period doing this while we all sat in stone cold silence.  At times he will even try to enlist our help in trying to understand what he is supposed to be teaching us.  Now there would be no problem with this if it was done within the context of a democratic classroom where student voice actually matters and affective learning was taking place, but in this instance it just seems like he was using us to bail him out of an embarrassing situation.  Now what I have described so far, represent specific Dr. James hidden curriculum, but notice I didn’t even mention the aspects of the hidden curriculum which are present in every classroom where the professor employs traditional “banking” lecture-style pedagogy.  These aspects include the foward-facing seating arrangement, the non-stop one-sided lecture, and the widespread use of multiple choice assessments.  All of these characteristics and practices of the traditional hidden curriculum not only derive from certain unspoken assumptions about how students learn but also serve to  cultivate certain “unstated, norms, values, and beliefs” within students that define the lens through which they view the institution of schooling and its relation to their lives.  Brazilian educational theorist, Paulo Friere, in his most famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, states the “unstated”,

  • the teacher teaches and the students are taught;

  • the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;

  • the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;

  • the teacher talks and the students listen — meekly;

  • the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;

  • the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;

  • the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;

  • the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;

  • the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;

  • the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects. (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

I want to comment on Dr. James 29 point curve in the context of Friere’s seventh bullet point, “The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher.”  In my email to him, I acknowledged that there was probably not one other student in the class who cared one iota about the negative implications of the curve as I did.  That is because the overwhelming majority of students, especially in college, now treat school solely as a marketplace for grades.  I can’t tell you how much I tire of hearing my fellow students constantly badgering their professors about “Whats going to be on the test?” “What format is the test?” “Are you going to send out a study guide?” “Do you give out extra credit assignments?” “Will we have numerous chances to boost our grade?” “If I do bad on the tests will I still be able to pass if I perform well on my quizzes and lab reports?”  What annoys me the most is when students start asking me these same questions about professors I’ve taken before.  I usually respond by asking whether the difficulty level of the professor is the only thing they really care about.  Invariably they respond in the affirmative, and then I either politely decline to answer their questions or feign memory loss regarding the professor in question.  Some self-righteous conservative pundits who graduated from university a long time ago (or perhaps didn’t) will blame this obsession with grading on lazy students who possess a toxic “ends justify the means” attitude toward schooling.  It is this same myopic, naive, and ignorant attitude that lays the blame for school wide cheating scandals on individual students and administrators with no moral compass.  For various reasons which I prefer not to focus on in this post, America possesses this long and nasty tradition of blaming systematic societal and institutional problems on individual shortcomings.  Henry Giroux terms this insidious phenomenon, “the politics of disposability” because the negative consequences of such an attitude towards society’s problems are endured primarily by marginalized populations viewed as disposable by the wealthy and politically powerful people of this nation.  I want to argue that college students represent one of these forgotten and abandoned populations suffering under the thumb of this market-based notion of schooling where nothing matters except what’s good for your GPA.  Grades, far from being used as an effective measure of assessment (I would argue that it’s impossible for them to perform this function adequately anyway),  have metastasized into a currency by which students and their professors arbitrarily negotiate over which knowledge is important and which isn’t.  Knowledge (Not talking about disconnected facts and ideas here) has become a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  But these are not even the worst aspects of a college culture obsessed with grading.  Recall that, in my email to Dr. James, I cited the American obsession with multiple choice style testing regimes as one of the wellsprings of our obsession with grading.  In order to illustrate the truly oppressive nature of this practice  I would go one step further and argue that here America’s narrow conception of educational achievement acts through the teacher and then acts through the student to produce this poisonous pedagogy which relegates students to the role of passive information receptacles obsessed with testing and grading policy.  And what is the easiest way to assess whether or not a student has become the best superficial learner he or she can possibly aspire to be?  That would be using multiple choice, fill in the blank, and matching test formats.  So to put it in Friere’s terms, it is not only the student who has the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher but also the teacher who has the illusion of acting through the action of the larger society.  These fanciful illusions represent the ways in which both teacher and student have become marginalized and disposable in America.  Knowledge has become commodified under the dominance of traditional lecture-style pedagogy and and has consequently lost its emancipatory and liberating power, and hearkening back to my original point it is Dr. James inability to critically analyze his own practice within this larger theoretical context, as a result of never having gone through a teacher education program which emphasizes the connection between methods and the theory which informs those methods, that basically rendered him unable to respond to my concerns in a substantial and meaningful way.

Works Cited

Apple , Michael. “Curriculum as Ideological Selection.” Comparative Education Review. 20.2 (1976): 210-211. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary edition. New York City: 1970. Print.

Giroux, Henry. Teachers As Intellectuals. Granby, MA: Bergin Garvey Publishers, 1988. 46. Print.

Kincheloe, Joe, and Shirley Steinberg. Students As Researchers: Creating Classrooms That Matter. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis, 1998. 9. eBook.

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One thought on “Stop Curving! Stop Lecturing! Stop Grading! Start Teaching So We Can Start Learning!

  1. You make some real points here. Ones that I struggled with when I was going through high school. I eventually decided to skip collage, that the ends really didn’t justify the means. It was a rational decision and I made it knowing how weird I was being and how much trouble it was going to cause me. Now I’m over thirty and I have no collage education. People always say one of two things when they find out. “But you seem so smart.” or “There’s still time.” There’s also this sort of panicked pity that they radiate when they say it. They are so glad not to be me. What I don’t bother to explain is that the system for gaining an ‘education’ in this country strip mines away everything that I love about learning, until all that is left is a piece of paper (the degree) that essentially means nothing. Yes that piece of paper is important in our society. But I would rather have an active mind than that piece of paper. At the time when I made the decision it really was an either or situation.

    My sanity would not have survived another four years of ‘educating’. Every time I read stuff like your post or listen to people bitch about their professors, I congratulate myself on making the right decision. But now that I have been away from the system for awhile I wonder if I could go to collage and get the piece of paper, so that I could go into the sciences. There are a lot of fields that really interest me. But I would have to pay a lot of money and put up with a lot to do it. I didn’t ‘put in my time’ in a university situation and I would have to make up for it. Honestly it sounds exhausting.

    Our society punishes those who don’t conform to the prescribed rules fairly harshly, even as they laud people for being ‘rebels’. I rebelled by stepping out of it and letting it pass me by because I didn’t have the strength to fight it anymore. But passive rebellion doesn’t really accomplish much.

    I’m glad that there are people like you who are fighting within the system for change. I hope you can at least shift a few minds. Eventually perhaps we can reach a tipping point and the status quo will alter and be more inclusive.

I write to dialogue. So please, let's engage each other in some dialogue.

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