Flexibility and Pedagogy

In his influential “‘Good-bye, Teacher… ‘” Fred Keller lists five aspects of his Personalized System of Instruction that differentiate it from more conventional methodologies:

(1) The go-at-your-own-pace feature, which permits a student to move through the course at a speed commensurate with his ability and other demands upon his time.
(2) The unit-perfection requirement for advance, which lets the student go ahead to new material only after demonstrating mastery of that which preceded.
(3) The use of lectures and demonstrations as vehicles of motivation, rather than sources of critical information.
(4) The related stress upon the written word in teacher-student communication; and, finally:
(5) The use of proctors, which permits repeated testing, immediate scoring, almost unavoidable tutoring, and a marked enhancement of the personal-social aspect of the educational process.

PSI puts the student at the center of the educational experience. The things the teacher does are more in the planning, in the construction of space and units of progress… as well as preparing activities such as motivational lectures and demonstrations. When students and teachers communicate, it is through the written word, giving a trail of trial and progress. Finally, when students have advanced through units, they can act as proctors themselves, reinforcing the learning they’ve just completed.

What’s most important about PSI (or, at least, my version of it) is that it has built-in flexibility. By starting with the student rather than with a rigid methodology, PSI allows for variety and change. The teacher, after the start of the semester, spends a great deal of her or his time observing students and modifying plans based on what students are doing–instead of creating lesson plans in hopes of modifying students based on what the teacher does. It also allows for a variety of activities, solo work, one-on-one work with other students and proctors, individualized communication with the professor, movies and lectures, and anything else that allows the student to progress with interest and relative ease. A suite replaces the classroom, a suite that does include a performance space, individual work areas, group work areas, and teacher offices. Variety in physical space can be as important as variety in activity.

An early group of the Society of Friends (Quakers), at Balby in England in 1656 advised, when describing what worked for them in their faith:

Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.

That last is from St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians. To me, that’s the most important guide for teaching: keep centered on the spirit of the students and not on the letter of the law–any law. Student learning depends on student willingness, and that is developed through a variety of means, all centering on the students but differing by the unique skills of each teacher as well.

Miriam Burstein, on her blog The Little Professor, has a post, “How to write an essay about teaching that will not be published in the NYT, Chronicle, IHE, or anywhere else.” She writes:

All instructors have to assemble their own pedagogical toolkit from the many resources out there and restock it (and recreate it) as necessary.  There is no one single way of being effective.  There is no magic spell… that will make all pedagogical techniques effective all the time.  It is very difficult to generalize from one instructor’s experience to the next.  One gets on with it.

"Paulo Freire" by Slobodan Dimitrov - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paulo_Freire.jpg#/media/File:Paulo_Freire.jpg

“Paulo Freire” by Slobodan Dimitrov – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paulo_Freire.jpg#/media/File:Paulo_Freire.jpg

She doesn’t say so, but my guess is that her post is, in part, a response to an op-ed by Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, in The New York Times. She posits a dichotomy between lecturing and the popular teaching styles of today–many of which descend from things like PSI and the writings of Paulo Freire, both of which move the lecture from a place of centrality in the learning experience. Worthen writes:

Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media…. “I think the students value a break from their multitasking lives,” Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and an award-winning teacher, told me. “The classroom is an unusual space for them to be in: Here’s a person talking about complicated ideas and challenging books and trying not to dumb them down, not playing for laughs, requiring 60 minutes of focused attention.”

OK, but why does it have to be an either/or? Why not lecture, when that seems to be appropriate, and engage in something else at other times?

Even lectures work in different ways. Worthen puts a premium on note-taking skills, and sees this still as integral to the value of the lecture. I don’t. Like Keller, I see the lecture as motivational. I use it when student effort is flagging, making it a means for regaining enthusiasm. She also sees the lecture as a means for teaching listening skills:

A lecture course teaches students that listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next — and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions. “We don’t want to pretend that all we have to do is prod the student and the truth will come out,” Dr. Delbanco told me.

Certainly. But it is not the only way of doing that, and it does not work for every student.

That’s why I like Burstein’s little post so much. Her list of seven items emphasizes that there is no single way–and (without saying so) that the Friends at Balby were right, far beyond religion.

3 thoughts on “Flexibility and Pedagogy

  1. 18 and 18 Year Olds have been at the center of their experience all their lives. Time they learned that there is a universe that operates irrespective of them, and that events and situations one must learn to size up and act or decide not to act on may not leave them to “proceed at their own pace”.

    • In addition to being counterproductive, your assumption, Joseph Foster, just isn’t true. Maybe it is for some students, but certainly not for all. My students come from all over the world and many have had experiences that, if you heard them, would boggle your mind. One, just to pick a single example, walked for three days through floods in Pakistan a few years ago, just to get to the airport to try to get back to City Tech on time for the start of the semester. Another’s father was shot and killed in Haiti when he went back to help her sister–he had just walked out of a bank, having cashed a check. Most of them are poor; many support children; the majority work. If I assumed that each has “been at the center of their experience all their lives,” I would be sorely underestimating them.

      I suspect you would find that true on more college campuses than not, many more.

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