Thursday, 16 June 2011

Pedagogical methodology, or: 'teachin' proper like'

I've been thinking about education.  What with 'ole Tony Grayling opening up his new super school and all (but that isn't what I want to discuss, all I have to say on the matter is that I think it's pretty despicable).  Besides, I've been thinking about education quite a lot this year anyway.

Like many grad students I do some undergraduate teaching to help pay the rent.  I've just completed my second year doing so and I really rather enjoy it.  This past year I had a rather heavy teaching load, so I spent a lot of time thinking about how best to teach philosophy to undergraduates.  This will be the first of (possibly more than one) posts about various pedagogical conundrums I've come across.  One of the main such problems that I've encountered is finding the right balance between being supportive/easy going and being strict, like a pedagogical Muller yoghurt I couldn't quite balance the pleasure/pain ratio for my classes.

To elaborate, I like to keep the atmosphere in my classes pretty relaxed, I don't want to be telling students off and jumping on their backs.  This isn't because I want them to like me or anything like that (at least I don't think it is... I hope that isn't it).  The way I see it, it's more conducive to a productive class if the students feel comfortable contributing, and don't feel worried about how what they're going to say is received.  It's worth noting at this point that I teach mostly first years at the moment, so the main goal of the classes (to my mind at least) is to familiarise the students with philosophical method and how to approach topics in an intellectual manner.  This goal cannot be achieved if the students are  too intimidated to contribute.  As you may have guessed however, this leads onto my problem.

The price of being relaxed with the students is that they start to think it's acceptable not to do the preparation for the class.  When this happens I am left with two options.  First I can give them a telling off just like they would have got before coming to a school for big boys and girls, probably ensuring their future preparation, but also probably ensuring their future silence (and perhaps absence).  Second, I can let it slide, not hassle them, and they'll not hate philosophy, or class, and they can continue on their way to being comfortable with engaging with the topics, or maybe they'll just see that 'ole Banksy is a push over and doss from then on.

But this isn't the only problem.  If a significant portion of the group isn't sufficiently prepared then they aren't going to get much from a discussion of material they aren't familiar with.  So, do I spend time in the class bringing them up to speed?  Or do I just leave them to fend for themselves?  If I do the latter then they lose out.  "Jolly good!" you may say, but my job is to help the students get better, whether the little blighters deserve it or not.  If I take the former option then the few good students who really care about their studies and are prepared miss out.  It's no use to them to go over content they already know, what they need is to try out their philosophy muscles on the material.  Suffice to say this isn't fair.

I suppose what I'm trying to get at is a dichotomy between nurturing level one students or leaving them to stand on their own with a 'you're at university now, so tough luck'.  My original thoughts when I started teaching were very much of the latter persuasion.  I was an MA student and it is now my experience (of a whopping great 2 years) that MA students are the harshest teachers.  I guess the memories of being an undergrad are still too fresh... who knows.

These days I find myself being too laid back on under prepared students, not only is this unfair on the more committed students, it's not fair on the lazy ones either.  If they're going to get ahead then they need to learn to work.  But I don't want to take the 'flip' you attitude either.  I think you can only take that attitude if you have good reason to have that kind of expectation of the students.  I don't think we have that.  I don't think the current education system prepares students for university education, but that's another (significantly long) rant for another day.  I don't want to voice my general complaints about the education system today.  I only want to focus on my particular conundrum.  

I'm not willing to take either of these approaches, I want a method of running my classes that ensures that students work hard and also feel relaxed and comfortable so that they can actually focus on learning and not appeasing teachers.  So this is me acknowledging that I have this problem, I'm busily coming up with solutions to this for the next year but I'd love any feedback about how I can ensure the best balance in these classes.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. You're totally right that the relaxed atmosphere is likely to get more engagement from more people but is also more likely to result in sessions where the tutor has to either pander to the unprepared (boring the prepared students to tears) or cater to the prepared (leaving the unprepared feeling clueless). I'm curious to know your thoughts on a few possible solutions:

    (1) Tiered groups. The assumption here is that high attainment is directly proportional to preparation. Seems like a fair assumption.

    I have heard some criticise this solution with claims to the effect of: "the close proximity of high-attainers is helpful to the students with low attainment". But, dragging up other students' grades is not the responsibility of high-attainers.

    (2) Make classes voluntary.

    (3) The department clearly establishes a rule such as the following: 'Students who show up to class unprepared will be turned away'. If this were the case, then the tutors could sympathetically imply that they wish they could let the unprepared ones in, but their hands are tied, thus maintaining the relaxed atmosphere. The discipline would not come from the tutors themselves; it'd come from the man.