Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A is for Autonomy

There was an article in the New York Times some weeks ago about a new book called Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the assignment, which basically is a compilation of 89 favorite lessons as delivered (or remembered) by various artists and art teachers. It looked like an interesting resource, so I ordered a copy, and quite some time later (the publisher was caught off guard by the publicity and fell behind on getting the orders out) it arrived. Since it's basically a miscellany, I've been reading it in bits, as I find the time. The other day I got to an entry by Justin Lieberman, who, in the middle of a longer piece, had this to say:

In my former post at an art school, I found that my students generally scoffed at assignments. They considered themselves artists rather than students and expected them to meet them on their own terms, which I was happy to do. After all, I prefer a critical conversation in which there is a measure of reciprocity. But in my current job I often find myself working with econ and poli-sci majors who see nothing wrong with telling me they are taking their class in order to raise their GPA. These students often complain to me that I am not giving them clear enough guidelines in my assignments. To this I often respond with a mock belligerence: "I am not your father! Do what you want!" This of course makes it nearly impossible for them to "do what they want," so long as they see me as any kind of authority. Of course, I am extremely uncomfortable with any kind of authority conferred upon me from outside, and this is my way of introducing the reciprocity. I must assume the role of authority in this situation, and I assume this role by rejecting it and handing it back to these poor souls drowning in obedience. Now it is their turn to "assume the role" — that of an artist and independent thinker. I admit that it is a bit of a crash course, but I feel it is necessary in order to prevent myself from becoming a "cult leader"-type professor with a pack of slavering clones at my heels.
He goes on to tell some entertaining stories about specific encounters with students. But I thought this brief passage raises a raft core questions about teaching and learning, about authority and obedience, about the nature of art (and independent thought) and the sociology of school.

This morning I had a brief meeting with a colleague who told a story about a project he had asked his students to attempt that involved them doing some explorations with materials that neither they nor he had used before. He asked them to try things out, share notes with one another about what seemed to work and what didn't, and build on one anothers' successes to build progressively more complex and interesting constructions. It went great; the students were all playing around and having fun and building stuff. Then he made what he thinks was a mistake: he announced to them that since the end of the term was coming up, they were going to have to choose and submit one of their works to be counted toward the final grade, and do a reflection paper explaining what they had done and what they had learned. Immediately the tenor of the class changed. The kids started worrying about time, they started rushing, they started complaining, the fun went out of it, and it became less about the exploration and the learning than about doing what they needed to do to get a grade. I'm not sure it was in fact a mistake, it was just a shift in emphasis that resulted in a shift in perception on the part of the students. After being put into a zone that felt different from what they were used to, they reverted, once the issue of grades was raised, to the kind of "schooly" behavior that schools have inculcated so successfully that it becomes the default, where we go when we hit the reset button.

Lieberman's passage, and my colleague's story, both point to an archetypal dilemma for teachers. It's true that students at times need direction, need instruction, need a structured framework for exploration and feedback along the way. But it's also true that they need openness, they need space, they need room to play around and try things out and fail. Ideally, there would be an approximate balance between those two kinds of learning. But my experience, first as a student myself, later as a teacher, and most recently as an administrator, is that the proportion of work that students undertake, during the course of their K-12 education, that is done in response to explicit direction from the teacher, (as opposed to collaborative investigation or exploration) is somewhere north of 90%. In our legitimate concern to provide scaffolding and support and to make sure that the directions are clear and everyone can succeed, we overstructure every minute of class time and explain exactly what students need to do to get a good grade. It's what we do, with all good intentions. And the teachers who do it best and loudest are adored by the students and lionized by the parents. I've worked with more than one of these paragons, who build a devoted following by telling students what they most want to hear: Just do what I tell you to do the way I tell you to do it, and you'll succeed. No muss, no fuss, no uncertainties, no ambiguities. There is a way, and I know what it is. Do it my way and you'll get perfect 800s on the SAT, 4.0 GPA, admission to the college our your choice. And for most (or if not most, enough) of their students, the promises come true; and the pedestal the teacher stands on gets broader and taller and ever more gilded.

But it's certainly no great wonder then that the students turn out, in Lieberman's words, to be "drowning in obedience." And it's my guess that even teachers who would prefer, like Lieberman (who is, let us not forget, teaching college students), prefer to defer (or avoid entirely) stepping into the role of arbiter or authority figure ultimately wind up there, usually about a week before grades are due.

In my forty+ years as an educator, I've known perhaps half a dozen teachers who have refused, on principle, to go there. Of that handful, there are are maybe two or three who succeeded in creating the kind of learning environment that not only made the students feel good but also resulted in impressive, consistent high-quality work. (And of those two, one of them was not teaching in school at all, but teaching an ungraded adult-education course populated by students who have chosen to be there.) It's not that it can't be done. But there are a lot of factors mitigating against it.

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