students and the resistance to teaching

–I should say that I first became interested in AWB’s post because I’ve always been interested in the resistance students offer to teaching, often to very good teaching, because I myself never was a particularly good student.   I know that I never learned anything until I was ready to learn, whatever the quality of the teaching I received.  And yet I find myself nowadays on the other side of the teacher/student divide, trying to outwit someone falling asleep in the front row or giving me stinkface or handing in papers three weeks late.  So why try to understand what could be so easily explained as stupidity, laziness, cluelessness, etc.?

Well, if the “pedagogical dramas” of reality television are to be believed, these shows are selling us on the excitement of a standoff between an authority-figure  (with whose judgment the viewer is aligned) and the deluded subject (whose views need to converge with the judge’s  before the end of the program).  This is where we find the suspense in the formula, in our desire for the deluded person onscreen to close the gap and begin to understand what’s really going on around her.

I suppose that most reality television shows follow this developmental pattern, which seems as true of Intervention as it is for What Not to Wear or the Dog Whisperer.  Nonetheless, the intermittent progress of the would-be learners on reality shows appears in a far more jagged and surprising fashion than we ever find  in the usual depictions of teaching or teachers in movies or television.  (Stand and Deliver, anyone?)  And the fact that such shows frequently return to their subjects, months or years after the initial show, to see whether these people have sustained the improvements, is evidence that these shows always intended to demonstrate their subjects’ “development,” no matter how illusory.

Perhaps the most useful lesson we can take from these shows is the notion that “metacognition”–the ability to think about how one thinks–does not represent a fixed capacity, but remains something that occurs within certain narratives, both short- and long-term.  I get confronted with my own failure, or my sense of embarassment over earlier failures, or my history of self-created difficulties, and I wonder why.  Contradictions and dissonances build up over time, and at some point I must change my views, or at least I recognize that I should change my views, if I wish this story to get a new ending.

So at what point does the Bed and Breakfast owner admit that he makes a lousy breakfast, and that he needs to add more salt to his fried potatoes?  Or that he needs to worry about the dust and dirt all over his pillows and bedspreads before he decorates his tables with miniature flags?  Or that the point of a B&B is not just his private amusement, but the comfort of the people who pay to sleep in his beds and eat his food?  At what point does he realize that his performance, his priorities, his knowledge or skills, are not what they should be, if he wishes to accomplish something?  And even if someone tells him, is he willing or ready to hear such a message?

Bad teachers tend to assume that students’ capacities for change really are as fixed as students think they are, and inexperienced teachers may have no idea how much change they can expect from the students they would like to help.  More experienced teachers know better, especially when operating in the context of a long-running class with a successful sequence of assignments, which provides them with the invaluable information of the range of potential responses that students will give to a particular task.  That’s when the experienced teacher realizes that it really isn’t personal at all–students are getting out of the task whatever they put in, without making any kind of implicit  judgment on the abilities of the teacher.  (It is this teacherly fear, that the shittiness of a student’s performance genuinely reflects one’s capacities as a teacher and as a human being, that plays head games with us all).  This is one of the reasons why sharing information about teaching is so crucial to the activity: it helps everyone self-correct.

One of my favorite passages in Richard Haswell’s Gaining Ground is his observation that formative theories of human behavior can perversely reinforce our belief in  “fixation, the human tendency to stick at an immature point in development, because it is safe and easy” (109).  This “immature point in development” is precisely the student’s moment of hesitation, hovering around the pre-tipping point while poised at the threshold of unforeseen worlds.  This is the point in the student’s developmental process that every teacher worries over, wondering just how to push a student, ever so gently, off the edge of the table.  Haswell reminds us:

It seems Piaget’s mechanism of change–equilibriation–can operate as a mechanism of fixation.  Similarly, in information-processing theory, skills are acquired as humans wrestle with new problems.  But the very drive toward solutions may encourage the learner toward the most efficient one, which is to interpret the situation as not being problematic . . . . Fixation is a defense mechanism arising from anxieties associated with the fear of change itself (109).

It is this fear of “fixation,” the fear that students will settle for something less than genuine learning, or that they will always choose the false equilibriation, that allows teachers to rationalize their own (prematurely fixed) views of students and their capacities for change.  And there is nothing like the capable but resisting student, teetering on the brink of something (whether genuine discoveries or utter failure), to pique one’s interests as a teacher, and to make us  feel once again the dramatic arc of a student’s learning.



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