Monday, December 10, 2012

Figure it out for Yourself!

 From a comment by a college teacher on Chris' blog, A Blog About School:
I am finishing my semester with my college students and one of their last assignments is to create a video on an assigned topic; they work in groups of five or six. Today, as they prepared to premiere the videos in class, one student said, "You know, none of us knew how to use iMovie so most of what we did we just kind of figured out by horsing around with it."

Over the years, I endured bad teaching evaluations (done at the end of the semester by all students in every class) because students write that I am too "vague" and don't give good directions on assignments. I give good directions. What I don't do is tell them how to do assignments. So, for example, the instructions or prompt for the videos are complete; they are thought-provoking; they offer guidance. What they do NOT do is explain how to begin a project on iMovie; which buttons to select for each aspect of editing; and how to export the movie to Youtube. I do implore them to begin early and allot ample time for editing.

When the student made that comment in class, I said that I believe that we in education have taken away all sense of learning by exploration and an intended by-product of this assignment is to challenge (force?) the students to embrace some of that curiosity again, even if it is for the sake of a grade.

Usually, in a class of 25 students, three or four get it.
I'm sure this teacher means well, but she's putting her students in an impossible position.  The students are looking for the quickest, most efficient way to complete the assignment and get a good grade.  "Horsing around" with the problem of how to get started is not a reasonable use of their time.
an intended by-product of this assignment is to challenge (force?) the students to embrace some of that curiosity again, even if it is for the sake of a grade.
You can't "challenge" or "force" someone to embrace curiosity; it just doesn't work that way.  The teacher is correct to sense that there is a basic contradiction between telling students to embrace their curiosity and grading them.      
Approaches like this beg the question, "What is a teacher for?"  If she isn't there to share her knowledge, why is she there at all?  You might as well save her salary and just put the students in a room and tell them to figure it out.   

I would add that the topics the teacher wants her students to figure out for themselves, e.g. "how to begin a project on iMovie", are not even the creative aspect of the job.  Why not show the students how to start the project and which buttons create which editing effect, and then let them use their creative impulses in the actual making of the movie?
 Usually, in a class of 25 students, three or four get it.
It's time to change your teaching methods.  These are terrible results.


  1. I think I have to disagree on this one. I don't think asking students (adults in this case) to figure out how to use iMovie on their own is unreasonable. It's true that learning iMovie wasn't the point of the assignment, but that seems like all the more reason not to spend class time on it.

    In any event, I agree that it's hard to blame students for wanting as much help from the teacher as possible, given that they are being graded and that grades have real-world consequences. Still, I think a teacher has to resist that pressure to some extent, if the students are going to learn anything valuable, rather than just how to follow instructions.

    It's true that there's inevitably a tension between educating people and sorting (i.e., grading) them. I think many teachers would be perfectly happy to do only the former and dispense with the latter, but they usually don't get to decide that issue.

  2. Chris, she wouldn't have to spend class time on "how to use iMovie". She could write up some quick pointers to get everybody started and save a lot of frustration.

    Actually, in this day and age, I would think there's probably good instructional videos on youTube that would render this whole discussion moot.

    From the students' point of view, she's making their lives more difficult for no good reason. As she says herself, only 3 or 4 out of 25 students "get" the point she's trying to make. Wouldn't that cause you to start looking for a new approach? I hope it would.

  3. This wouldn't be so bad if the students hadn't spent 13 years being told exactly what to do--and more or less forbidden from doing anything else. There's also a fine line between hand-holding adults and wasting a lot of people's time, and I think this teacher is falling on the wrong side of that line.

  4. I know the business model is over-used, but bear with me for a moment. Who's the customer here? Isn't it the adult students? If they consistently make the same complaint, shouldn't the teacher take their complaint seriously? And if the teacher herself says that only 4 out of 25 students get her point, shouldn't she try something different?

  5. But the fact that there are probably easily-found YouTube videos on how to use iMovie is exactly why it's not too much to ask students to figure it out on their own. I think just about any of us (even oldsters like me!) could make an iMovie video in pretty short order.

    (Notice that the teacher doesn't actually say that the students complained about being asked to figure out iMovie on their own. Nor do we know how many of those "bad teaching evaluations" she received in the past. She may be referring to a handful of bad reactions; I don't understand her to be saying that all but three or four students in each class complained. In any case, if we knew more specifically what her students' previous complaints were about, we'd be better able to evaluate whether the teacher was asking too much of them.)

    I think Matthew's right that students have gotten accustomed to too many assignments being just exercises in closely following directions. But that's why a good teacher has to push back, at least to some extent, on that tendency.

    As for the business model: some students might be there simply to get the credential, without regard to whether they learn much along the way. But if you cater to the desires of that sort of customer -- just tell them exactly what to do, no thinking required, and then give them a credential for doing it -- the credential itself will soon lose its value, which even the most credential-driven students don't want. We can argue about exactly where the line is between asking reasonable and unreasonable things from the students, but, even under the business model, there has to be a line somewhere at which a teacher pushes back against the students who (sometimes, and for reasons that are understandable at least in the short-term) wish that the course work was easier.

  6. Hi, Fed Up Mom.
    Thanks for your thoughts on my commnts. Does it matter that this is a class in a teacher prep program?

    I agree with Chris--there are plenty of videos on how to use iMovie. Part of the process here is to get students (who will be teachers very soon) to look for answers some place other than the written instructions in front of them. What will they do when they get a new student who has dysgraphia, for example? There won't be instructions. I HOPE they Google it and find out what it is; what it means for a student in terms of instruction and accommodations; etc.

    Too many of our students go out into local schools, only to return down-trodden and discouraged. "I really wanted to do that cool project I developed in class [one that meets all of the mandated standards and Common Core requirements] but I can't. The district requires us to teach what we're told; when we're told; and essentially how we're told." What we try to teach the future teachers is, "Use what you are required to do and supplement it with activities and ideas that will engage your students in a way the worksheet they HAVE to do doesn't."

    To be quite honest, for every complaint I have about iMovie and similar tools I require students to use in class, I have twice as many former students come back and report they use the technologies in their classes not as TEACHING tools (teacher centered) but as LEARNING tools (student centered), having their own students create projects that celebrate critical thinking, creativity, and knowledge. Because, not surprisingly, most of their students know how to use iMovie...and are onto the next thing. :)