I was talking with a student who works in our center on Friday and he reported that he had slept about 2 hours in the past 24 or so, studying hard, and yet he was still not caught up on the work he had been assigned to do for the end of the semester. It was as if, he said, the teachers realize there are only 10 more days to go and therefore have to cram everything into the syllabus (and into the students’ sleep-deprived brains) in order to get to the finish line.
But does anyone actually learn anything when this happens? Does anyone ever stop and take a look to see if learning really occurs in those last frantic days before the term ends?
I know of one faculty member who front loads his class…all of the heavy lifting is at the beginning of the semester because he knows that the end of the semester is when people get hammered by all of their other profs. Plus it is springtime here… springtime in Ohio feels like a huge reward after winter and many weeks of almost-spring in Ohio…and it is hard to work when the weather is so fine.
But why do we tend to burden our students (and ourselves!) at the end of the term if we know deep down that they forget almost everything they cram under duress? I have that wonderful recurring nightmare about being told I need to retake my Algebra 2 final in the 10th grade because “they” need to see if I was just parroting my answers or if I really truly understood the concepts. I wake up in a cold sweat every time. I wonder if other people have those same dreams when they teach.
In language education there is a debate about “learning” vs “acquiring” a language that seems appropriate to mention here. If you “learn” something, it is in your short term memory…and not for long. But if you “acquire” it, that means what you have learned has become permanently welded into your brain, something you can rely on being there for the long haul.
How one goes about “acquiring” a language is a bit of a mystery, and it varies from person to person. Everyone has their way of moving along the language acquisition continuum. But one thing theorists are saying with certitude is that cramming a second language rarely leads to language acquisition.
So why do we do this to ourselves and to our students? Why do we, time and time again, create syllabi that are chock-a-block full of tasks that are impossible to accomplish wisely and well?
I understand the logic that says that in Spanish 101 you need to teach the first half of the book because Spanish 102 (the next course in the series) will begin at the second half. So you had better hurry up and get there… and cover it all, dagnabbit.
But if people would just stop and look up for second they would see something: the first two chapters in Spanish 102, that is the middle two chapters of the textbook, are usually REVIEW chapters. And what do they review? Why, the stuff from the last two chapters that they know most people jet-skiied right through in order to get to the end of the semester.
In my mind, the really good teachers are the ones who can follow the syllabus but also figure out when the class needs or wants to go deeper into the material and then helps them do so. S/he also is able to articulate what the intended outcomes of the class are meant to be w/o being wedded to a syllabus and then helps to get everyone there, alive and in one piece and able to reflect upon what they have acquired along the way.
But where does that courage come from? The courage to say, um, hold on here…this is not working. The courage to stop, reflect, look around, assess and redirect. These are all things that folks like McKeachie and Skorczewski have asked us to do…but we don’t Do it. Why?
Ryan and I were having our weekly staff meeting and he came up with this thought: for any change to happen, any real change… you just gotta want it. How true. And once you want it, really want it, and once you can clearly articulate why you want it, and once you can articulate what you want the outcome(s) to be… the rest all falls into place.
This time of year we all feel and act like automotons…we are going through the motions, one foot in front of the other. Once the summer comes and the blood begins to coarse through our veins again, my hope is that everyone will stop and think for just a moment about where they want their students to be, what they want them to be able to do, by the end of the next term. Resist the temptation to pull out the same ole crusty syllabus. Resist the temptation to go through the motions and the patterns of the past.
Be bold: Just gotta want it.