No-Bullshit Teaching

This is a post where I try to put some ideas I’ve been wrestling with for a while into new words, hoping for new insight. What follows may or may not be worth a hoot. Caveat emptor.

The more I do this “teaching” stuff, the less tolerance I have for the bullshit involved. I’m realizing that the driving force behind many of my pedagogical experiments and innovations is a desire to reduce bullshit.

For the present purposes, I’ll define bullshit as “statements or actions that are not strongly, deeply, openly, and genuinely aligned with actual goals and values.”

Using the assessment and reporting (“grading”) system of a course to coerce students into acting in their own best interest—or what we at least believe to be in their own best interests—is bullshit.

Assigning tasks for students to do in order to drive them to study what I want them to study, rather than because I really care that they can complete those specific tasks, is bullshit.

Structuring my course around an explicit system of instruction with “rules” for how I should teach and assess (no matter how pedagogically enlightened and research-based), and then spending more energy figuring out how to conform to the system rather than what my students are thinking and what I can do to help them, is bullshit.

Any time the students are asked to focus on something other than the direct, bare learning objectives of the course, or I have to focus on something other than moving them closer to achieving those objectives, bullshit is happening.

Why is formal education so rife with bullshit?

I think the primary cause is something I wrote a paper about a few years ago, albeit in a slightly different context. In Illuminating teacher change and professional development with CHAT” (2009; abbreviated, cleaned up a bit, and in press right now as “Viewing teacher transformation through the lens of cultural-historical activity theory”), I used cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) to analyze an intervention my colleagues and I did with secondary school science and math teachers. Long story short, I argued that the root of many of teaching’s difficulties is an inherent contradiction in how we see and treat students: as self-invested learners whose aspirations we support, and as recalcitrant subjects whose conformity we coerce. As I put it in the paper:

The activity system treats students as the object of activity, as if they were “raw material… at which activity is directed” (CATDWR, 2003, ¶4), despite the unavoidable fact that they are willful individuals making a transition to adulthood. Students’ dual status as both object and community member lies at the root of the contradiction. The issue is sovereignty and whether students act or are acted upon.

Unfortunately, we are stuck in an institutionalized educational structure that deeply embeds this contradiction. Vanishingly few of even my most curious, internally motivated students feel they can afford to ignore the bullshit.

Short of overhauling the entire system (which I’d love to do, but doubt I can achieve on any reasonably finite time scale), what options does that leave me as a university teacher?

First, let me sharpen my definition of bullshit in an instructional context. A course plays out on two separate but interrelated planes: the plane of behavior engineering, involving all the artificial constraints and of grading, deadlines, work requirements, and so on; and the plane of intellectual learning, involving the actual sense-making activity of learner wrestling with content and instructor trying to help. Bullshit is any time the first plane interferes with the second in any way whatsoever, even by merely distracting attention.

One option is to (somehow) narrow the gap between the two planes, making the behavioral engineering plane as minimal, unobtrusive, and well-aligned with the learning plane as possible. That could mean, for example, that when I want students to understand how the concept of entropy bridges microscopic and macroscopic models of thermal systems, I should assign them the task of “make sense of how the concept of entropy bridges microscopic and macroscopic models of thermal systems.” The corresponding assessment should be “explain, illustrate in multiple ways, and reflect upon how the concept of entropy bridges microscopic and macroscopic models of thermal systems.” Or something like that.

Of course, most students need scaffolding in order to accomplish that, and I can provide scaffolding by way of suggested readings, suggested stepping-stone tasks to wrestle with, subsidiary questions to discuss, and so on. If I make this scaffolding the official assignment and assessment structure, however, I’ve just introduced bullshit.

As many of you will no doubt be hollering at me right now, the weakness of this approach lies in the fact that many students will deliberately or unwittingly undermine such an approach by finding ways to “game” it, and/or by availing themselves of the tremendous freedom provided to shoot themselves squarely in the foot. Why? Because we’re embedded in an institutionalized sea of bullshit, and they’ve been raised to view learning through that highly discolored lens. Students function in an attention economy where the immediacy and consequences of demands on the behavioral engineering plane determine how time and effort should be allotted. “Yeah, I wanted to spend some time figuring out that physics thing, but I had a history paper due and a chem exam coming up…”

The other option is to go completely renegade and subvert the system entirely: refuse to play the game. On a lesser scale, this could mean cheerfully letting students shoot themselves in the foot rather than introducing any behavioral-incentive bullshit, and hoping that eventually some will develop the requisite internal motivation. On a greater scale, it might mean taking the issue of grades off the table (and refusing to buy into the institution’s use of grades) by stating up front that “Every student enrolled in the course get an A. Now, let’s stop thinking about grades and do some learning.”

I’m not sure I’ve got the guts to do the latter—certainly not before tenure. I definitely feel driven in that general direction, however, by the distinctly nauseating odor of bullshit.

About Ian

Physics professor... science education researcher and evangelist... foodie and occasionally-ambitious cook... avid traveler... outdoorsy type (hiking, camping, whitewater kayaking, teaching wilderness survival skills to high school students, etc.)... amateur photographer... computer programmer and amateur web designer... and WAAY too busy!
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One Response to No-Bullshit Teaching

  1. Keri says:

    As I just had an exceedingly bullshit day, this resonates. Thanks.

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