learning · pedagogy · teaching

Teaching with compassion and responsibility

While  compassion and responsibility do not sit at opposite of the pedagogical spectrum, I’ve stumbled over this conundrum lately, and I might just need your help to sort it out. The basic question, I guess, is how to balance the need to teach facts, e.g., passive voice, as building blocks for higher-order critical thinking, with the expectation, especially in an English class, that everything is up for interpretation. More pressingly, how to accurately assess the process of learning in a way that does not belie a progressive pedagogy.

I see it as my responsibility to equip students–as many as possible–with these building blocks that they can later count on, and thus dispel the myth that analyzing literature or popular culture and writing about them are the domain of a chosen few. If we model these methods–here are the building blocks, here’s how we put them together, here’s how they become evidence, here’s how we analyze, rather than simply judge–in class in a variety of ways–individual and collaborative–students will leave class with a toolkit they’ll be able to access afterward.

Compassion comes into the equation in a variety of ways. First, through the respect enacted in a decentred class. Second, by ensuring a distribution of different methods of delivery and types of assignments, so as to engage the various types of learners. Third, through ongoing consultation: most students I’ve encountered can diagnose their needs well, especially if they’re at a moment in their life when they can dedicate their attention to education. And that’s the final aspect of compassion for now: most students I teach juggle their education with jobs to pay for it,  volunteering, and family responsibilities.

Where’s the conflict? Simply put: in the unsatisfactory act of putting a grade on an assignment that comes at an arbitrary point in the ongoing process of learning and skill-acquisition. That grade, in spite of my attempts to contextualize it with tailored comments (and a wealth of them, at that) remains a poor, problematic, yet final assessment that tends to foreclose a process that  otherwise might have continued: what’s the incentive, for students who are as multi-directionally engaged, to continue practicing those skills, when the judge has spoken? Moreover, how do we reconcile the contradiction between the decentred class that the instructor moderates, and the fact that instructor suddenly becomes the judging authority?

There are alternatives out there: many people I know work with the contract grading model, in which a student is guaranteed a certain grade if s/he submits all assignments, and participates in the mandated meetings. Moreover, the assessment happens globally, on a portfolio, on the progression of learning, etc. Yet another system, championed by HASTAC, proposes a system of Badges for Lifelong Learning, which both acknowledges the need for and the reality of the ongoing learning process, especially when it comes to skills.

You’d think that, eight years in, I would have figure these pedagogical conundrums out, but they just seem to become more pressing. How do you see and achieve balance? Conversely, what’s your pressing pedagogical conundrum?

One thought on “Teaching with compassion and responsibility

  1. This comment comes from RW:

    Okay. So I'm thinking about the post, and the thing foremost in my mind right now is the level of the student. I've used the contract system and portfolios, exams, creative assignments. My pedagogies are student centred but also cover the breadth of assignment and assessment types.

    My experience to date suggests that the open models of assessment–low stakes writing, contracts, etc.–are extremely useful for first year or lower year students. However, I'm teaching a 4th year seminar right now (my second one at Canadian University), and my take on the 'grade' issue is very different. The way I see it, the seminar is the culmination of the academic experience. By now, students should have their skills in place, and the demands of the course are high. So my problem this term has been how to curb my desire to engage in the more open practices with my desire to also instil in the students that, in this class, the stakes are high and they have to pull up their socks. A couple of the students who have taken numerous courses with me of the other style are having difficulty adjusting, but they also have hopes of grad school.

    I'm not sure I have an answer or that I've figured out precisely what the appropriate balance is, but I do think that by 4th year, the expectations are different and so the assessment must also be different.


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