This is a quick little essay about why a teacher can employ all the “right methods” (pick your buzzword: student-centered, learning-centric, participatory, collaborative, problem-based, etc.) and embrace all the most rich, compelling, and engaging technologies, and still fail. This is an essay in the true sense of the word (which Gardner Campbell has recently reminded me is derived from the French infinitive essayer, “to try” or “to attempt”) … so this is just a try, an attempt, and in that sense also an invitation for you all to jump in and let me know your thoughts as well.
The problem of why good classes fail has become a bit of an obsession for me lately. I visit several colleges and universities every semester to talk to faculty about teaching and learning, and everywhere I go I try to sneak away for just a bit and slip into the back of an unsuspecting class just to see how things are going. This has allowed me to see a broad range of techniques and styles, and to see how students respond to them. What inspires this essay is that it is more often than not that I am disappointed by what I find. At worst, I see people feeling disengaged, disconnected, and alienated, and that’s just the professors. At best, I see rooms full of people dutifully playing the game of school, listening carefully, taking notes, etc. … which is okay as far as it goes, but I rarely see people getting lit up, inspired, excited, upset, or even a little uncomfortable (which would be a pretty good place to be for a breakthrough learning moment). The apparent levels of disinterest are astounding, especially in the face of rich content that has included everything from the capacity of ants to create eerily human-like civilizations to the promiscuous (though changing) sexual practices of teenage Trobriand Islanders. (“Really!?” I’m thinking as I sit in the back of the room, “You are not even a little bit interested in this?!” and I realize I could just as well be thinking this about the professor, who seems to be showing as little interest in the material as the students.)
To be clear, these are not all, or even mostly, straight “sage on the stage” lectures, and that’s what inspires this little essay. In fact, the few truly fantastic classes I have stumbled into were just as likely to be “sage on the stage” lectures as they were to be based on more participatory methods. And the disheartening reality has been that a really bad lecture doesn’t fail as badly as a really poorly executed participatory class. Many of these professors seem to do everything “right.” They ask their students questions, pause and let them discuss with their neighbors, show YouTube videos that relate to their own experience, and invite discussion. But disinterest and disengagement still reign. Why?
Part of the answer in some of the cases has already been implied; a disinterested professor has no chance of inspiring interest in their students. But that does not account for the more compelling failures, those that involve a clearly dedicated professor that is passionate about their material using participatory methods along with content that has been carefully crafted to be relevant and engaging for students.
So what’s wrong? In short, the common thread I see throughout all the failures is quite simply a lack of empathy. There is no authentic encounter with students, or what Martin Buber called “a genuine meeting.” When we use all the right methods, and we still fail, it is most likely because we are encountering our students as objects and not as the rich and complex individuals that they are. When we do not bring our authentic selves to the classroom and open up to an authentic encounter with our students and the topic at hand we fail, regardless of the methods we choose. “Methods” and “techniques” need to grow out of an authentic encounter with students and the material. Any focus on method and technique alone will be prone to failure. Our questions will fall flat, our lectures flatter, and break-out sections, group work and other participatory methods become just one more thing to do, seemingly without purpose or relevance.
I have become painfully aware that my own presentations are often taken as demonstrations of method and technique, and in this regard I find myself with a similar problem that psychologist Carl Rogers faced when he first started exploring the role of empathy in the therapeutic encounter. As a young therapist he discovered that simply listening to his clients and empathizing with them seemed to help them. He obtained some recording equipment and studied therapy interactions carefully. This process allowed him and his students to identify specific techniques that seemed to work. However, when these techniques were turned loose on the world and used by other therapists, these techniques became mere caricatures of what they were in the artful practice of Rogers himself. His complex empathic method became caricatured as a simple technique of “repeat the last words the client has said.” He was so dismayed by these results that he abandoned the study of empathy for some time before finally returning to it later.
So rather than focusing on emulating particular techniques and methods, we should be doing everything we can to embrace, inspire, and use our own empathy in order to better understand and relate to our students. It is only from this space that we can effectively generate and use the appropriate techniques and methods for any particular task. In this way, there is no “recipe,” “secret sauce,” or “silver bullet” for teaching effectively that can be used by anybody, anytime, anywhere. Instead, I’m proposing a “generative” method, one in which we “generate” the appropriate method that takes into consideration the broadest range of factors that we can manage to accommodate.
This is in no way a call to abandon method. Quite the contrary, it is a call to learn about as many methods and techniques as possible, and as many technologies as possible – not so you can load up your course with as many “good” ones as possible, but so that you can call forth those that might be good given the way your particular encounter with your students and work evolves.
I know there is nothing particularly new in this argument. The roots of nearly every buzzword-method I mentioned above have this “generative” idea at their heart, but too often we have forgotten that, and the method becomes a bit too methodical, the technique a bit too technical, and we lose that generative core that can continuously be re-generated through the richness of a true empathic encounter with our students.