Is traditional instruction that boring?

I have been puzzling over the op-ed “Plato’s War on Play” by Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College and author of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. (The op-ed is behind a paywall in The Chronicle of Higher Education.) Carnes argues that philosophers and educators from Plato onward have distinguished between the “good play” that is appropriate for the classroom and “bad play” that must be kept outside its bounds. In doing so, they have denied themselves a powerful classroom motivator; harnessing “bad play” for academic purposes can do wonders, as the role-playing game Reacting to the Past suggests.

Role-play may indeed motivate students. But why assume that “traditional” instruction cannot do the same? Why assume, moreover, that slower and quieter kinds of engagement lack value?

Carnes writes:

But during the past decade, some faculty members and administrators have discovered that the motivational power of “bad play” can be harnessed to academic purposes. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of the phenomenon is the spread of Reacting to the Past, a pedagogical system I helped start, in which students play monthlong games, set in the past, with roles informed by classic texts. For the game set in Athens in 403 BC, for example, students become democrats or oligarchs, and compete by debating the respective merits of Pericles and Plato; for the game set in the Holy Office in Rome in 1632, students pretend to be mathematicians, natural philosophers, and conservative cardinals, and debate whether Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems proves that the Earth moves. During the past decade, Reacting—the epitome of Platonic bad play—has spread to more than 350 campuses.

All well and good–but underlying this movement is an assumption that lectures, discussions, seminars, presentations, etc., are not interesting for students. In a reply to my comment (on a different matter pertaining to the piece), the author writes:

I didn’t mean to suggest that Plato was the originator of the concept of “bad play”. I argue that he was an influential proponent of the idea that competitive role-playing is bad form of play, seductive and dangerously powerful, which must be suppressed. And so it is that the chief proponents of educational play–from Plato to Piaget, and from Rousseau to Dewey–have denounced role-playing games. Which explains why professors embrace “good play”–a lively seminar discussion, a witty lecturer. The problem is that often our “playful” seminars and lectures aren’t all that much fun–for students or for us.

Two questions: Is it true that seminars and lectures–playful or not–aren’t all that much fun? Must they always be fun?

I hear the frequent mantra that the “old” methods no longer engage students and that new ones are needed. I find this strange. I attended my first lectures–about the Moon–at age eleven, and found them captivating; since then, I have almost always enjoyed lectures and seminars for the substance and exchange. In fact, I appreciate classes that give me room to think, where I don’t have to jump in immediately and do or make something. There’s fun in this–but it’s fun that doesn’t always have to be fun. Am I an outlier? Is the world at large clamoring for more “bad” fun? If so, should educators meet the demand, or should they push back a bit?

I am not against role-play as one of many instructional formats. I have used it at times. But month after month of it could get dreary. Even actors could find role-play limiting, since it both is and isn’t acting. I question the widespread assumption that traditional education (with all its variety and permeability) has failed us so deeply and badly that we must embrace something new.

Avoid ickiness at all costs

This is my last guest post before Joanne returns. (Update: In addition, one of my satirical pieces appeared on The Cronk of Higher Education today.) I have enjoyed this guest-blogging stint and am grateful that Michael Lopez has been on such a roll.

If I were to give advice to a new teacher, it would be twofold: (a) avoid ickiness at all costs; and (b) do not be afraid of repetition.

Teachers often get told what to do and how to do it, but intelligent administrators realize that they won’t (and shouldn’t) follow directives to the letter. When deciding what to follow, what to adapt, and what to ignore, a teacher can safely put icky things in the last two piles. One can take an icky thing and make it less icky, or one can avoid it altogether. No teacher should have to descend into anything tacky or dumb. (Of course, what’s icky for one teacher may not be so for another.)

For me, “turn-and-talk” activities are often icky. I do recognize the exceptions. When learning a language, students can benefit from talking to the person next to them; the more practice they get, the better. When learning a poem, students working in pairs can take turns reciting. But the usual “turn-and-talk”—where the teacher poses a question and then has students talk to each other, right away—goes against my grain, because it makes for a room of chatter, and it often interferes with the thinking. Why turn and talk? Why not pause and think?

I have been in many situations where I had to turn and talk to my partner, and I found it silly. I would have been better off with a bit of space and quiet, and then a full-forum discussion later. Of course, not everyone shares my preferences—but teachers should have some room to be true to their own. There is usually a reason for them.

Yet there are teachers for whom such activities are not icky in the least. They conduct “turn-and-talk” activities as though they were drinking water. It is possible, also, that a teacher might find it offputting at the outset and then warm up to it, or vice versa. In any case, teachers should have some room to listen to their gut, especially when it is squirming and turning.

The second piece of advice seems unrelated, but actually it comes from the same principle. Do not be afraid of repetition, especially when it is repetition of something good. There are many kinds of repetition in the classroom: daily repetition of routines and of subject matter; the act of returning to ideas and works over time; and even drill. I find that my students get a lot out of reading a passage several times. The first time, it hasn’t yet sunk in; the second time, they are starting to find their way through it; and the third time, they can start to notice some of its subtleties. Return to it later, or even in a subsequent year, and they find even more.

Far from being boring, repetition can actually be exciting, as you start to anticipate things: a turn in the poem, a favorite phrase in a passage, or a difficult cluster of syllables. Young children enjoy hearing stories over and over; so, often, do older children and adults. I enjoy rereading books more than I enjoy reading them the first time. (That’s why I have difficulty reading large numbers of books, or part of the reason.)

What do the two pieces of advice have to do with each other? Both come from the principle that you can have exciting lessons (or thoughts) when you allow for a bit of calm—that there’s room for interesting things when you aren’t constantly pursuing novelty and change. Teachers often feel pressure to keep things exciting and active (and to be “innovative“), but this may crowd out some of the greater excitement (which by nature cannot be there all the time). By contrast, if you turn something around and around, day after day, you start to see its textures and patterns. I don’t mean that instruction should be entirely repetitive; of course it has to move in a direction. But the repetition helps it do so.

For whom is this advice intended? For me and for anyone who finds that it makes sense.

The Danielson Framework: what is engagement?

I look forward to the next twelve days of guest-blogging with Michael Lopez. I will begin with some thoughts about the Danielson Framework for Teaching and its assumptions about student responsibility. A question for readers: is an “engaged” student one who starts projects, initiates groups, and selects materials? Or do you have other definitions of engagement?

The Danielson Framework (created by Charlotte Danielson, an education policy adviser and consultant) is now the standard teacher evaluation rubric in New York City and hundreds of other districts around the country. It will be used with  a point scale, Danielson’s discomfort notwithstanding. (She told Peter DeWitt in an interview, “In general, I don’t like numbers of any kind. Teaching is enormously complex work and it is very hard to just reduce it to a number of any kind. However, it’s important to capture, in a short-hand manner, the relative skills of different teachers, so I suppose numbers or ratings of some kind – are inevitable.”)

As reading material, the Framework generally preens my feathers instead of ruffling them (though the two are not necessarily at odds). It consists of 22 components, which are distributed across four domains: Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. The explanatory text fills in some of the subtleties and caveats.  As a rubric, though, it affects not my feathers but my gut; some of its key premises seem shaky at best. For instance, it assumes that student “engagement” is essential to learning and that students manifest such engagement overtly through initiative and leadership. The first part makes sense; how can you learn unless you put some effort into it? It is the second part that leaves me uneasy.

Let us consider the Framework’s third domain, “Instruction,” and the domain’s third component, “Engaging Students in Learning.” [Read more…]