How I Teach: Part A

This is the opening to an honor society presentation offered at SUNY New Paltz in the spring of 09. I will offer it here in two parts to suggest you might want to think of them separately as I cover a lot of ground for one presentation. 

                                  Howling at the Moon: How I Teach
                                             © 2009 by k s moss 

          I want to talk today about human learning, beginning with a theoretical base and offering a number of concrete suggestions to practicing educators. If I succeed, some of you will find suggestions in what I describe that appeal to you and might be integrated into your own approach. 

          Oddly, public discourse of late has been dominated by terms such as standardized testing, assessments, rubrics and learner outcomes. In a way they are all learner outcomes. Rarely are they associated with theories of learning or actively debated. To my way of thinking all of these focus on the wrong end of the learning process.  

          Here we are preparing an egg salad (filled with delectable, tempting and dynamic tastes) while some nameless invective comes at us now and, frankly, for the better part of 30 years telling us to look at the other end. At best it is an anal joke. At worst it imposes a kind of tyranny (c.f., Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison and his extension of the argument as it applies to schools as institutions.) 

          What happens after our classroom presentations isn’t truly known to us anyway as responses vary substantially from person to person. Given the diversity of learners generally and our students specifically, we cannot teach in the finger warning way of lecture certainty, but only by invitation – an invitation to engage, to sing along, to investigate, to consider – and to pursue what lays claim to personal interest and enthusiasm. “Boredom,” says my brother, “is constrained anger.” (He teaches in Watts…yes that Watts, but boredom isn’t limited to an underclass.  

          Learner outcomes tend to be short term goals sterilized by the abstractions of academics. What the student has learned may or may not be evident when we receive the papers or tests we spend so much of our time marking, depending on how far the process has progressed. For learning is an ongoing process and grades but temporary markers. And since student learning of substance will proceed without us, our contribution simply must come at the opening of an investigation. In a real way, we have already done what we can, before we put a single mark on a single paper. 

          The learner outcomes approach is based on an American Psychology once aptly called Behaviorism – where white rats run mazes and the experimenter alters a number of variables to see what can increase the speed of memorization while decreasing the time it takes to get to the goal with its food pellet reward. Often this results in well-trained if somewhat obsessive animals. As the organism gets more sophisticated, this anti-therapeutic psychology suggested that we think of the learner as a black box. While there were inputs and outcomes, what took place inside the being had no scientific basis for commentary since there was no way to gather experimental evidence other than to ask the subjects and who could possibly believe what they had to say? 

          Yet only when students lay claim to their learning does it become vital and sustainable. It is characterized by bright eyes, enthusiasm, earnest pursuit and that most affirming of all responses laughter. It can take the form of a curious investigation or the formulation of a surprising proposition. It can break out in class discussions so engrossing that we can sit down and just listen to the exchange. I am particularly pleased when students tell me of the discussions they have had on topics raised in class which prompted hours of reflection, comment and argument at home, in the dorms, or in the bars for that matter. These can be spoken of as outcomes, I suppose, but as a friend of mine who I will call Professor Kevin – now teaching Philosophy at a University outside Dubai – puts it, “Learning cannot be measured quantitatively.”

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