Expansive Teaching Versus the Assembly Line

In a comment on a post of mine yesterday, someone wrote:

“Adequate teaching” of any subject (humanities and social sciences included) requires:

– decent texts;

– teachers who understand their subjects and can explain them to students in lectures, quiz sections and seminar discussions;

– relevant homework assignments and reviews;


– being perceptive to what students are ‘getting’ and what they aren’t.

This extremely reductive—and quite common—vision of teaching is a large part of what has led to the current mania for assembly-line educational structures, standardized testing, and the “corporatization” of American education in general. It takes teaching—and learning—from the realm of exploration and places it squarely in that of reiteration.

Let me respond, as a teacher, to the “requirements” the person who commented presents:

  • A textbook is a recap of extant knowledge. It encapsulates as much as a roadmap does. It is also something that does not, in itself, require a teacher. Anyone can pick up a textbook and read it. An unspoken assumption of the textbook is that knowledge can be contained. Even as a kid, I devoured textbooks—as I did encyclopedias—but these weren’t the heart of real learning any more than a penchant for Google searches or Wikipedia is, today. I know a young man who feels he is an autodidact but the fact is that he is simply a little more adept at using web searches than his fellows—and has a slightly better memory. When I was in eleventh grade, my Chemistry teacher offered a challenge: Anyone in the class was welcome to try to create a 5th-grade Chemistry text. I learned more about Chemistry through that than I would have through traditional classroom processes. Today, I like the idea of students creating their own texts. Doing so forces them to face decisions about knowledge and academic disciplines outside of what has been defined for them.
  • Lectures, especially today, when there are so many sources of information available to students, should not be explanatory but inspirational. In many cases, the best teachers are those who recognize that they don’t understand their subjects (not completely, at least) but are also exploring, though on a level different, perhaps, than the one of their students. I’m not quite sure what is meant by “quiz sections,” but quizzes are really nothing more than a means of ensuring that students are keeping up with their part of the classroom bargain by doing the work required of them. Seminar discussions are meant to bring students into active verbal exploration in a group setting; they are not a place for presentation by teachers.
  • Assignments and reviews are means for evaluation, not for teaching.
  • Being perceptive is always a part of teaching, but it encompasses more than awareness of student mastery of the putative subject matter. When that’s all it does, the teacher might as well be a Scantron machine.

In one instant where he is right, Stanley Fish writes, “The academy is the place where knowledge is advanced, where the truth about matters physical, conceptual, and social is sought. That’s the job, and that’s also the aspirational norm: the advancement of knowledge and the search for truth. The values of advancing knowledge and discovering truth are not extrinsic to academic activity; they constitute it” (Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution). Teaching is as much about advancing knowledge as “pure” research is. Reducing teaching to rehashing what has come before and to evaluating student ability to parrot that rehash serves no one. It only stifles real learning.

Update: I failed to mention the most important role of the teacher, that of motivator. If the students aren’t motivated to learn, they won’t. A teacher actively engaged in learning activities of their own (including discussions on social media) is more likely to motivate students than is one simply reciting the past at the students.


“A Dames School (2781207528)” by National Media Museum from UK – ‘A Dame’s School’. Via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Dames_School_(2781207528).jpg#/media/File:A_Dames_School_(2781207528).jpg

3 thoughts on “Expansive Teaching Versus the Assembly Line

  1. I would just like to point out that in many fields (including some that I teach) there are no textbooks at all — so basing one’s teaching on ‘decent texts’ (rather than readings, primary sources, images, recordings, etc., selected by the teacher) is not an option. So the first criterion starts from a very narrow notion of the range of disciplines taught in a college/ university and the pedagogical practices required. Teaching orchestra conducting is very different from teaching introductory physics — the latter may involve textbooks, the former usually won’t.

  2. Further, the statements seem to imply that “all knowledge for a particular field has already been mastered and it is up to us to impart on our students the ‘right’ answer.” However, for pervasive, often intractable, and ethically challenging questions (what I call “wicked problems”) there is no such thing as a single correct answer that can be spewed out on an assessment. Instead, real learning involves synthesis and integration, and this is not learned by merely regurgitating what the professor feels is the correct synthesis. Teach them how to learn, how to integrate, and they will be able to then go out and work towards real problems with difficult solutions.

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