Sunday, June 12, 2016

From the Stick Motivation Department, Part Two: Class Participation

In last month’s post I discussed the coercive parenting technique of assigning chores to children. The alleged lesson of such coercion is to teach children the value of work, though it likely teaches them to hate it.

Coercive teaching contributes a number of techniques to the stick motivation department. Let’s take a look at class participation.

For middle and high schoolers, and even college students, teachers feel obliged—and claim the unquestioned right—to coerce quiet members of the classroom to “come out of their shells” lest they fail to succeed in life or live up to their potential; grades based on class participation, by as much as fifty percent, I have heard, is the brass knuckle approach to teaching this lesson.

Five to ten percent, perhaps as extra credit, may have some instructional value. But fifty percent? These classes of twenty to forty students are not courses in public speaking.

And grades, after all, are the carrots and sticks by which teachers maintain control of their charges. I’m not the first to suggest that grades be dumped from the classroom entirely.

In the old days, the traditional (and coercive) recitation technique of class participation required students to summarize the content of their reading assignment, or, frequently, to recite something from memory. If not accomplished to the liking of the teacher, the kids would have their knuckles rapped with a ruler, or worse. In ancient Rome, they were beaten with a stick.

The modern version is a mixture of old-style recitation and analysis. The former, as the new schoolmarms are wont to say, should be kept to a minimum, because “we have all read the assignment.” Memorization, of course, is scorned as authoritarian and having no place in school. The latter, analysis, can include putting the reading material into different words, evaluation, and, too often, the spewing of undefended opinion.

According to ed school edubabble, such discussions will help teach students how to think. It usually degenerates quickly into BS sessions. And some of the more talkative students have mastered the technique of impressing teachers by their glibness; the quiet ones are then marked down.*

In recent years, some class participation teachers have discovered—and have experienced revelations when discovering—that their heavy-handed approach to getting those pesky and resistant-to-talking quiet kids to speak up in class may not be the best thing for them.

This has come about largely due to Susan Cain’s 2013 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and her subsequently established website Quiet Revolution.  (See my related posts here and here.)

Jessica Lahey is one such reformed class-participation tyrant. Writing in The Atlantic, she firmly defended her conviction that quiet kids must be forced to speak up. When she received an “avalanche of angry comments,” many of which, to put it mildly, declared her “uninformed,” she wrote a softened article on Cain’s website. Lahey acknowledges that she was influenced to alter her teaching by Cain’s book and other articles on the topic (See especially Schultz and Cain for examples of teaching quiet kids without putting them on the spot.)

The upshot of “class participation reform” is that introversion and shyness are not the same and that any behavior can be motivated by multiple causes, not just what the extroverted teacher assumes is operating in the quiet kid.

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating” (Cain, p. 12). A room filled with twenty to forty classmates can produce considerable overstimulation for an introvert. Extroverts prefer the stimulation.

And most extroverted teachers assume shyness and introversion are identical. They also do not recognize that quiet kids may be actively listening to the other talkers, waiting for the moment to speak up when they have formulated what they would like to say. They also might be taking notes, say, for a subsequently required paper. Or, something extroverted teachers usually do not want to hear or acknowledge, the student may not like the teacher or the class, or both.** Certainly, there are other motivations.

But just as not voting in an election is participation in the political process, so also is not speaking up in class a form of participation. Teachers need to respond to, and find techniques of, reaching all personality types sitting in their desks.

A “one size fits all” approach to teaching, such as the assumption that speaking up in class is good for everyone, invariably brings out the specter of stick motivation.

* I must point out one more time that John Dewey, the alleged father of progressive education—“alleged” because he gave the epithet to Francis W. Parker—lectured when he taught, expected excellent memorization from his students, and wrote a book in 1938 to repudiate many progressive techniques used in his name, such as the necessity of class discussion to teach students how to think. For Dewey, subject matter was fundamental, because it is the “working capital” of thought.

The premise of many teachers today, as one colleague said to me years ago, is that “we teachers talk too much as it is. We have to get the kids talking.” I took that to mean less work for the teacher, something that was explicitly stated by my grad school classmates as justification for group projects: one paper to grade instead of four or five.

** Yes, I know there are teachers who brag about how they don’t care whether or not students like them or their courses. But they should.

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