Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 36 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Teaching as popularity contest?

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Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 36 seconds

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I got this heartwarming email from a student this morning:

“how are you my friend and teacher?hope this find you well.you know i had a chance to attend the world forum in puerto rico and i been attending all the sessions about technology and with every session i keep saying ” rabana ykremk ya maha ” you know why because nothing of what they were saying knew to me and this is because of you i owe this and i thank you alot *_* “

I have had many great emails from students, but I have also been on the receiving end of some really angry, unhappy, or just unsatisfied students. Whether they don’t like me as a person, dislike my teaching style, or are unhappy about a particular incident… It happens.

I do a lot of assessments of other people’s teaching and have seen it all, or a lot of it, anyway.

I say all this because I want to comment on a recent post in the Guardian that suggests student feedback is not useful. The problem with that post as some friends commented on facebook (and many ppl commented in the comment section), is that the author seems to be taking a very negative attitude to the students themselves (as in “what would they know about learning and teaching?”, not the system by which their feedback is taken, e.g. Via standard institution-wide surveys that don’t account for context, or by the lack of responsiveness to student feedback altogether that makes students jaded about the process and its usefulness for them.

One of the most annoying parts of the article, to me, was one that at first glance does not seem to be an attack on students, but for me, is (btw the below is the author’s response to students’ unhappiness with what they perceived as overly feminist aspects of the course):

“The course content reflects academic research and theory on the subject and is not up for discussion“

That is for me hugely problematic. The assumption that there is a particular canon of knowledge that needs to be taught, ignoring each instructor’s subjective selection, interpretation, and approach to presenting that content to students. Ignoring students’ need (right, even) to learn in a way that engages them, seems relevant to them… It seems to me that any good teacher should care if their students are unhappy with the content and try to find ways to help help them see its relevance/importance. Or at least address their feedback.

That particular course was one with a feminist focus (or so the author says). I have had similar issues trying to teach about gender issues: sometimes men don’t get it and feel it is biased. Um, well of course, it’s biased, to the views of about 50% of the world population who are women! The comment students made to that teacher about her bias should not (in my humble opinion) have triggered a defense of the quality of the content and research, but rather a trigger to open up discussions on bias, subjectivity, and how much of the world for many years has been perceived through men’s eyes only (which fits nicely with the course topics!). It was an opportunity to understand or to open up the issue in the classroom. But maybe that’s just me…

This all leads nicely into my upcoming blogpost (hopefully sometime this decade!) on process and critical approaches to curriculum… Coming soon..

But before I go: I am not ignoring the issue of how student feedback can be done poorly in universities to the extent of being neither helpful to students nor to teachers. I can write a longer post on that later. But I just wanted to respond to this particular post. Mine is a partial blogpost. Responding to a partial post 😉

Teaching should not be a popularity contest but often feels like one 🙂 But as someone said in the comments (this links to one of the best comments on the post), although teachers need not be entertaining, we should strive to make it at least engaging. My take on it: Our goal should not be to teach, it should be to help or facilitate student learning, and I don’t know why anyone would continue teaching if they did not feel it contributed to student learning in some way.

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3 Comments

  1. I do find that the article is only talking about one kind of feedback. I do think here is something that can be gleaned from the feedback – for example, in my blog post on learning ‘at a distance’, i noted that my student felt the course load to be “heavy”, but when asked the number of hours they were spending on the course, it was actually low compared to the expectations of a graduate course. The feedback allowed me to “read between the lines”. But the ounce of truth in the Guardian article relates to learner preference. Here are draw upon: Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education. – where one of their legends is about learner preference. Learners may “prefer” to learn one way, but in reality that doesn’t mean they learn best that way. In many ways, I view learning as internal conflict – so if the learner isn’t uncomfortable they may not be learning – their preferred methods is what they are comfortable with, which may actually reduce the amount of actual learnings.
    I do think we put too much weight on immediate post-course bubble sheets. I think we would do better to ask people 3 and 6 months after the course – then we’d getting a better grasp of what they actually learned – and their opinions about a teacher may very well have changed in that timeframe.

    • I agree with the idea of asking feedback sometime after a course (even years after!) – that would be really valuable. Just because it’s logistically hard to do doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done when possible.
      At the end of one of my classes (I ask students to reflect in a presentation to their colleagues about key things they learned and improvements they suggest), some students’ feedback was that they didn’t like being “left alone” so much (when my goal was to promote lifelong learning and autonomy) on something I thought I had actually scaffolded too much! Half the learners (there were just 4 in this) were HAPPY they had struggled and figured things out on their own; the pain paid off and they felt confident they could do this and more on their own; the other half wished I had helped them more. Those are just two groups of people on the path towards lifelong learning, some of whom “got it”, some of whom didn’t… But the feedback of those who didn’t was useful to me – it helped me respond by clarifying again why I had done that, why I would do it again the same way. It’s not that their preferences are not important, but that I think voicing their preference to me and hearing again why I did not meet those preferences was valuable in and of itself… If that makes sense? The whole learner preference thing helps, I think, to make us think about why some approaches in class work better for some than others, and allows us space to consider mixing things up so we’re not constantly privileging one group over another. I don’t always think I know what’s best for my students. I just know why I am doing what I do, while they don’t always understand even when I make it explicit. I hear you about learning being slightly uncomfortable, but the whole ZPD thing has value for adult learning as well… You don’t wanna make learning so uncomfortable that learners drop out, or so comfortable they get bored, and when you have a mix of students (as is the case for most important things we teach)… Well i’m stating the obvious 🙂

  2. Maha, like your comment: “It’s not that their preferences are not important, but that I think voicing their preference to me and hearing again why I did not meet those preferences was valuable in and of itself…” It might be that in the power differential between student and teacher that students stumble over making observations and sound critical when they are only noting their reaction. Commenting on the world, whether it presents itself as unbiased education or outright injustice is of great value to learn.

    “They are not experts in the field and are not well-placed to assess the relative merits of a course” How would the article’s author have come to teaching from a feminist perspective if no one before had challenged the “well-place” to account for themselves? And of course there is the weakness of placing all students into the role of immature, uninformed and no doubt silly people trembling in the magnificence of received wisdom developed by mature, informed and thoroughly stuffy people who live in castles built entirely of correctness.

    Yes there are problems with popularity. Though less I think than the problem with assuming students are not to be taken with faults and wonky assumptions. Unlike their professor:-)

    Rebecca, discomfort seem like a valid form of ZPD. It initiates a desire (maybe a need) for resolution to be found. Do we always need to hit the correct answer first time out or does this create confusion and potentially remembering the wrong thing?

    Maha I wonder if you can scaffold for everything? Maybe forcing a decision through difficult choices or uncertainty can benefit a kind of reverse scaffolding where you ask “what happened to cause you to make this choice?”

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