Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"If you Aren't Scared Sh*tless, You Aren't Learning"

"It you aren't scared shitless, you aren't learning," the prof said to us.

We all laughed. The prof doubled down, "Learning should shake you, disturb you, confront you and make you sit up and pay attention."

Today that prof would likely provoke a class walk out. Someone would file a complaint. Everyone in today's class would prefer to continue engaging comfortably and unchallenged in their bubbles of learning. But at the time we did sit up, we thought about it, and considered what it meant if the normal experience of learning was to be anxious, worried, or as the prof said "scared shitless." 

Learning takes work.  Learning involves taking risk. Learning forces us to come to terms with what we can't do as much as what we can do. Learning requires us to realize when we need to walk away, even if there are consequences. That's the thing though, we seem to be in a society that wants to live consequence free. That's not totally true, but in the education world it does seem to be a thing in which students and their advocates (teachers, parents, students themselves) accept there are consequences for many things in life except not doing well on an exam or an assignment. 

Education exists in a peculiar ideological world. Success is said to always be possible, second chances are legion, and the primary cause of one not doing well is intrinsically external to the individual.  At the same time, there is a heightened sense the individual is measured by a grade (hence the many claims, that grade doesn't really represent who I am and what I can do or how much work I put into the assignment ...). Grade competition is facilitated by the rhetoric of excellence. The highest grades are considered to measure the best and the brightest. This drives grade accumulation ( the practice of focussing effort on doing what gets a grade, not on learning itself). This also drives the gatekeeping activities of the professoriate who have been charged with measuring who is brightest and most excellent. Yet the grade game directly contradicts the educational ideology of second chances and success for all. 

Throw a pandemic into the mix and it becomes a recipe for ramped up social hysteria and anxiety. We all feel it. Its a chronic noise playing just on the edge of hearing and damn it's annoying. Unlike the normal kind of emergency this knows no real limit or end - its always there.  Even if Dr Henry's marathon was several decades ago, she called the feeling right - after the exhilaration of the start, the pace settles down into a grind, and then a feeling that there is no end descends, finally as the finish seems to appear one gives a bit of a push to stumble chaotically over the finish line.  

In the midst of this pandemic social marathon it makes sense that people are looking for relief from the pressures of accumulating grades. Some people do it by cheating. Others seek to find ways to keep up the standards and revenue.  Some instructors are finding their own in class solutions. Still others are seeking concessions and waivers through more formal mechanisms.  Thing is these are solutions to the wrong problem.

Administrators worries about standards, or instructors concerns about 'covering' the content, or students fears of bad grades, are all linked to a practice of education that is divorced from learning. It's about assigning grades to sort people into appropriate categories; categories that determine their social utility for industry. We in fact have a recent UBC example of a Dean extolling their new arts degree as focused around giving students the skills industry wants.  The shared understanding of education as training plays into debates over administrative processes like when should students be able to withdraw from a class.

Being able to withdraw at any time, up to or past an exam, helps students in the grade accumulation game - it allows them to avoid risk. When a provost argues against such a chance they are arguing for the integrity of the employer oriented sorting program. When a faculty member worries that allowing late withdrawals will skew grades positively thereby inflating class average they too are expressing concern about the integrity of the sorting mechanism. The opportunity to withdraw is seen as key to defining linked but contradictory attributes of excellence and compassion. Excellence demands failure and strict adherence to consistent rules. Compassion, however, tends to follow situational - not procedural- rules. Administrators prefer discretionary mechanisms to incorporate ideas of compassion. Students and their allies demand consistent non-discretionary rules that essentially removes discretion by making the procedure more open. It's the withdrawal equivalent of universal versus income tested social benefits.

There is no simple answer to these issues. But neither is the answer complicated. On the withdrawal issue can simply allow it up to the 12th or 24th week of class - class averages be damned. 

We can also change the message to students about learning being a fun experience - it's actually hard work.   No one just steps out the door and runs a marathon with training (unless they're a character in a movie). Training to run takes real work, planning, and time. Life can get in the way of training, but on race day one either runs or doesn't run, finishes or fails to finish. The time on the clock is what it is. And this can be an excruciating experience. Rather than saying keep going, you can make it, we sometimes need to say perhaps you should sit this one out. Rather than pretending you actually ran the race, accept that this is not the race or the time for you. Try a different race, try a different year.  You'll be a better person for it.