The problem is not the students.

April 8, 2014, 2:58 pm

Last week I posted what I considered to be an innocuous and mildly interesting post about a proposed formal definition of flipped learning. I figured it would generate a few retweets and start some conversations. Instead, it spawned one of the longest comment threads we’ve had around here in a while – probably the longest if you mod out all the Khan Academy posts. It was a comment thread that made me so angry in places that it has taken me a week to calm down to the point where I feel I can respond.

It takes a bit of backstory to explain why I was so emotionally worked up over some of the comments in that thread, so bear with me for a minute.

We’re in week 13 of our semester here. I am teaching three courses (two preps), all using flipped learning models. One of these courses is part of the General Education curriculum, and the other serves mostly students in the CS department. It’s not as heterogeneous of a mix of backgrounds and abilities as I sometimes get, but still, the students are all over the place in terms of ability and attitude.

The students have worked hard. They have adapted. They have, at least a great portion of them have, figured out how to seek out answers on their own; how to be generous in giving help to others who are seeking answers; how to manage their time and tasks in the course; how to use technology to help make sense of concepts; when to put the technology away when making sense of things; how to map basic concepts onto harder problems; how to read a math book; how to watch a math video; how to learn a new computer language. (I am particularly proud of my two chemistry majors in the gen ed course who taught themselves how to program in Mathematica.)

Next week, all these students will be presenting application projects. I’ve been working with teams in all three courses since January as they’ve refined and worked on these projects. I was so focused on the particulars of each one that it wasn’t until last week that I had a chance to pull back and look at what they’ve been able to do. Here are some of the projects:

  • An encrypted instant messaging system, written from the ground up.
  • A system for rerouting delayed airline flights.
  • An AI for playing Connect 4.
  • An optimal pub crawl algorithm for visiting microbreweries in Grand Rapids. (My personal favorite.)
  • A system for using relational databases to suggest songs in a musician’s setlist.

This isn’t groundbreaking research, but it’s the result of students’ hard work and effort. And I could not be prouder of them.

It was in this context that I wrote my post. The comments contained some of objections to the flipped learning idea, and that’s OK. Flipped learning is not perfect, and there are many, many unknowns about it and bugs to work out. I don’t get upset over objections; I’ve been a blogger for too long.

What I do get upset over is the attitude, held by some, that the problem with flipped learning resides in the students. That students, generally speaking, are the problem. That students these days simply aren’t as “good” as they used to be; that they have no attention span; that professors are complicit by not holding students to any kind of rigorous standard; that the flipped classroom is “obviously” not rigorous and so it’s a perfect match for students these days; that what we profs really need to do is “teach the willing” rather than “take care of the mediocre”; that we should not be “at the mercy of the students”.

I have learned that whenever I post something about flipped learning or anything else that is not standard lecture, I will get comments from folks whose words make it painfully clear that their work in higher education would be a lot easier if it weren’t for all those damned students. To those people, I would just like to say a few things.

First: If “taking care of the mediocre” is a crime, then I am guilty as charged, and you should be too. Take it from a former mediocre math student, who had a few teachers and profs in the past who thought it might be worth it to stoop down and take care.

Second: If anyone thinks students these days are lazy, dumb, soft, or unwilling to learn, then I seriously question just how much time they’ve actually spent around students. Better yet, come spend some time around my students. Lecturing to them doesn’t count.

Third: If you think that we are engaged in a battle between students and faculty for the soul of higher education, and “being at the mercy” of students is tantamount to surrender, you are doing this entire “higher education” thing totally wrong.

Fourth: I do take some comfort in knowing that in all likelihood, institutions in which attitudes like these prevail among faculty won’t survive the next 10 years. There are too many options of institutions for students to attend where students – even the “mediocre” ones – are given some measure of respect.

Fifth: It’s a lot easier to label students than it is to try and reach them, challenge them, and oversee their growth. So I get where you’re coming from. But it’s wrong, and students know it’s wrong, and nobody is going to learn anything in that vortex of wrongness.

Finally: To repeat – principled objections and doubts about flipped learning or anything else are great. I point to Manda Caine’s comment in particular as an example of such. This week and next, I hope to take some time to address each of her objections point by point, along with other objections I’ve found. Observations like hers lead to conversations which make everyone better at what they are trying to do.

But let’s make one thing clear: Education is about students. It is about caring for them, pushing them, helping them, working with them rather than against them. Take a good long look at your reasons for being in higher ed. If students are not at the center, you are doing it wrong.

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