Don't Teach "Cute"!

by Tina Blue
Mar 30, 2001

          Last year my son Michael showed me the assignment for his second paper in the Western Civilization course he was taking here at Kansas University.  

          One choice of topic: Your friends are about to have a baby boy, and they have asked your advice on choosing a name for their son. Should they name him after St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, or Muhammed? Explain why they should choose one name over the other two.

          The second topic: You are the moderator of a televised debate for a hotly contested senate seat. Two of the three religious figures we have studied (St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Muhammed) are running for that seat. Write the questions for the debate and the answers each would give, and then present it as a dramatic scene.

          The third topic:  Of the three religious philosophers (St. Thomas Aquinas, Muhammed, and St. Augustine) which two would you assign to room together, and why?  Which two would you definitely want to keep in separate rooms, and why?

        I hope I don't need to tell you how silly and off the wall these essay topics are.

          All too often what passes for clever or creative teaching in our schools is irrelevant, self-indulgent, or just plain goofy. Perhaps some students would find such "creative" assignments more engaging than a straightforward request to compare the different figures' philosophies and their reasoning in support of those ideas--but, frankly, I doubt it. The sort of student that needs Big Bird to deliver the lecture on major religious philosophies is not the sort of student who is really interested in learning about such things or in writing analytical essays about similarities and differences in the core philosophies of important religious thinkers.

          And the sort of student who is interested in writing such papers neither needs nor desires the "cute" aspects of such an assignment. In the first place, the "frame story" of such assignments adds one more thing that the student must accomplish. And in the second place, since it is something that is entirely irrelevant to the ideas being examined, it is a distraction from and an obstacle to the student's attempts to comprehend the ideas and to clearly convey the substance of what he has understood.

          Besides, I don't think we have a right to demand that our students be "creative" in this shallow infotainment sort of way. Is the teacher going to grade the quality of the student's treatment of the assignment's frame story and incorporate that into the student's grade? Suppose one student writes great dialogue, but has only a shaky grasp of the the philosophy, while another understands the philosophy, but writes a really clumsy debate scene? Or suppose the bright, serious student simply finds the song and dance routine required of him to be an embarrassing waste of time--as I believe most serious students would, especially at the college level.

          Our students come to us with alarming gaps in their knowledge and skills, especially in subjects in the humanities. We--and they--have plenty to do to start filling in those gaps, without our forcing them to play games with what should be straightforward assignments. Besides, one reason for their ignorance is the fact that when they should have been mastering such material in lower grades, they were instead playing these sorts of silly games.

          For example, I often have to tutor students in basic math, because instead of learning to add, subtract, and multiply in the early grades, they played math games. One game I know of, "Road Trip," has the students moving little cars along a road. When a roll of the dice lands a student on a given square, he must answer the basic math problem (2+9, 6-3, 7x4, etc.) on the square. If he gets it wrong, or if he's caught "counting" the answer out, then the next student gets to try answering the question. The student who doesn't get the answer loses his next turn, while the student (usually the same one every time, of course) who gets the right answer gets an extra turn.

          Instead of making sure that all students do the necessary work to memorize essential math facts, this game ensures that those who need more study are deprived of effective practice and instruction, while those who already know the answers get extra turns and are declared "winners." (The corollary, of course, is that those who don't already know the answers are "losers.")

          Something similar took place in my son's Western Civ class when they reviewed for the midterm a couple of weeks ago. The teacher set up the review as a "Jeopardy" game and divided the class into competing teams. Because it was a competition, each team deferred to whichever team member knew the most, and the game became little more than a showing-off contest between the two best prepared students in the class, while everyone else sat back and watched.

          Michael won the contest (because he answered all the questions and got all the answers right).  His team congratulated themselves on having "kicked ass" (although hardly anyone else even tried to answer questions, and when anyone did, that person got the answer wrong). So one team "won," the other "lost," and no one but Michael, who didn't really need it, got to review for the exam. And if this were not a college class, there is no doubt that my son would have to worry about being resented and ostracized by his classmates. (He probably will be, of course, but he doesn't have to spend all day every day in a classroom with this group of students, so it doesn't make much difference. In a public school, however, it would have been a social disaster for him.)

          Sure, it's the students' own fault for not doing the reading assignments and for not studying for the exam--but only up to a point. If the students don't do the readings and don't prepare for class, it's often because the teacher has not conveyed to them the importance and the sheer fascination of the material being taught. And playing "Road Trip" in elementary school math classes or "Jeopardy" in Western Civ review sessions is not the way to get kids excited about learning the material. In fact, it is virtually an assertion that without such games the subject itself would be too intolerably dull to engage their interest.

          The truth is, most students despise these dumb teaching games, and they resent being made to perform in some teacher's idea of a "clever" or "creative" assignment.

          I could multiply examples forever, even in my own field.  For example, in some English classes, when they are supposed to be studying poetry, the teacher will have the students write their poetry essays on popular songs, which they can choose themselves. Great!--Britney Spears or gangsta rap songs get analyzed as poetry in a literature course! Then when they are supposed to analyze a short story, some teachers will instead have them explain how a given story makes them feel, and whether that feeling occurs because the story is related to an experience in their own lives.

          In the first place, that implies (as does so much of modern education in this country) that the students should think that everything is about themselves, and that the only value of a subject under study is whether or not it "relates" to their personal experience. (I am reminded of the nonsensical noise during my own college years about whether courses were "relevant" to the students' lives and interests.)

          I think teachers should stop trying to teach "cute." Please understand, I do not think learning should be dull drudgery. On the contrary, I can think of few things as exciting as being taught by someone who has both deep knowledge and passionate enthusiasm for his subject. But too many teachers don't trust their subjects--perhaps because they themselves are not all that passionately engaged by them.

          I've been teaching since 1972, and one thing I know from experience is that students don't really need Big Bird. They can be enthralled by any subject if it is taught energetically and enthusiastically, even if they don't get to show what they have learned in some form of performance art--or tell the class how the subject relates to their own personal experience.

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