And that way madness lies

By , 29 January 2010 9:14 pm

I don’t often talk about teaching for all sorts of reasons but mention came up of something this week that has wider implications. It is the fact that we teachers are to be encouraged to pay attention much more to the ‘learner voice’. In other words, the students are to take a more active part in evaluating our courses. Now, of course, much of this is splendid. They are, after all, the recipients of our teaching and in theory well placed to assess its validity. Furthermore, it is no bad thing for people of my age (50+) who grew up in a very different culture to be reminded of the problems and difficulties faced by those growing up in the present culture. Nevertheless, it is a tool that needs to be treated with a very large amount of discrimination. The real danger is that students will start to tell us how and what to teach. And, as I remarked to a colleague as we discussed it, ‘that way madness lies’.

In fact, teaching a subject like geology is very much telling a story; we know the end, but our audience does not. We alone know what plot elements are important; that knowledge is hidden from them. So in geology I labour away on such topics as the classification of igneous rocks in the early weeks. I need no surveys to tell me that the students find it dull. Yet when, as will be the case in the next few weeks, we turn to volcanic eruptions, they will suddenly realise that the hitherto dully academic difference between basalt, andesite and rhyolite is, in fact, of enormous value. A friend of mine who teaches modern languages is almost in despair at the idea of ‘learner voice’. Any sort of competence in language must be built on solid, tedious and frankly unattractive foundations of grammar.

A reminder of how potent this pupil power can be came this week with a well reported Facebook protest by allegedly thousands of biology students over an exam board’s paper. My biology colleagues tell me that the protests were largely unmerited but it has set a rather alarming precedent. Once upon a time, students were in fear of the exam board; now it seems that exam boards are beginning to feel afraid of students. Fail the exam? Don’t blame yourself, blame the board and try and get the decision overturned.

There is much here that if you are at all interested in culture, is fascinating. We have now had a couple of generations of being told that we are ‘consumers’ and ‘have rights’, and during which market forces have been given almost unrestrained freedom. Yet most thoughtful observers – even those from the political right – are now finding some of the resultant muscle-flexing to be troubling.

Churches are affected by this trend. No church of course exists in total isolation from culture and this critical, consumerist attitude is becoming endemic. The result is that there is a danger that in organising our services and preaching, we are driven not by what we feel is right or what we think God wants, but market forces. Not only that but once the congregation sees itself as consumers (‘We can worship elsewhere you know!’) they can all too easily feel they have a right to demand that things are done their way. A number of ministers of my acquaintance have found themselves troubled and perplexed by members of their congregations who have insisted on dedications, baptisms, weddings or funerals being structured and performed according to the desires of those concerned. There are many arguments for and against a fixed liturgy (as in the Anglican prayer book). I am beginning to wonder whether one of the best is quite simply the fact that it limits consumer choice. ‘Sorry’, it says, ‘this is the way it’s done. Like it or lump it.’

As I thought of this I was reminded of the old Latin tag Vox populi, vox dei ‘The voice of the people [is] the voice of God’, and checked it up on Wikipedia. It sounds as though the congregation wishing to have its own way has been something of a recurrent problem in Christianity because the phrase is first cited by the eighth-century Northumbrian theologian Alcuin in a letter to Charlemagne. The translation reads as follows: ‘And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.’ There is indeed nothing new under the sun…

5 Responses to “And that way madness lies”

  1. […] teachers are to be encouraged to pay much more attention to the ‘learner voice’. In fact he blogged on the subject. What it seems to mean is that students are to play a larger part in evaluating courses. And of […]

  2. BlackPhi says:

    So, why does teaching *have* to be: first lay dull theoretical foundations, then do some interesting stuff? Is that really the only way to do it, or just the way it has always been done?

    It’s easy to imagine leaders in the 15th-century church saying that listening to the Vox populi is the way to chaos and madness. It’s certainly easy to see churches today who resist change because the old way is the only way they are willing to conceive.

    I’m not really arguing that too much reliance on ‘customer wants’ can’t be a way to madness, but I suspect that this is a risk which has to be traded off against the risk of ossification when ‘supplier wants’ dominate.

  3. Bill D. says:

    Hi Chris,

    So many doors into good discussions on this one… One of the things I can look back on in my own schooling was observing the shift from being taught how to think, to being taught what to think. What I think this has created here in the USA is a current generation of teachers so inculcated with the humanistic philosophy of the day, that they don’t realize the lenses they view their disciplines through. It just seems natural to make the transition from allowing all opinions to be expressed in a free society to determining that all are equally valid. Critical, analytical thinking is reduced to reacting to what makes one feel good about themselves.

    I often hear dreamers allude to the youth of centuries gone by and how bright they were – composers, artists, and the political founders of our nation. What is conveniently forgotten is the bedrock foundation laid on a classical education, complete with discipline, repetition and inquiry. The radical idea of questioning authority, be it King or parliament (after making a considered educated decision to do so) has morphed into the more common practice of discounting or belittling authority on the basis of little more than discomfort and inconvenience.

    Not that there aren’t deep, critical thinkers among today’s generation of youth – there certainly are. But change for change’s sake (a la our current administration here in the USA), is hardly the recipe for progress.

    Vox populi vox dei occurs in the mind of the populi only when they cease to recognize that they are not dei.

    Blessings on you and your colleagues who seek to mold tomorrow’s leaders. It’s a high calling.

  4. Catherine Brislee says:

    I see this problem as an outgrowth of an over-emphasis on the rights of the individual in Western culture. It is a difficult thing to talk about, because I certainly don’t want us to lose our often hard-won rights, but I do think a dangerous lack of balance has developed. The other day I heard someone arguing that self-sacrifice is ethically wrong because our rights as individuals mean we should always put ourselves first!

    So how does this connect with education? A certain amount of humility is needed in order to learn anything, not to mention an acceptance that the person teaching you knows more. But to suggest the teacher might know better than the student what the student needs to learn is an idea in total opposition to our self-centred “rights” culture, even if that opposition is not spelt out. Sooner or later some bureaucrat is going to spell it out!

  5. dugmad says:

    Good day Chris,

    I have not visited your blog for some time and yet being back for a read it is still as refreshing as ever. This article really caught my attention. I see this very same trend in the university where I teach graphic design part time. My experience and education covers almost 3 decades and yet I see signs, as you describe, of the students trying, wanting, challenging to run the classes. This same idea reveals itself in the ‘rate the professor’ world and sites/pages that do that in a public manner. I am not afraid of criticism nor ideas to teach ‘better’, but If an educational system thinks that the student body can do it better than so be it. That is a class I would rather not be standing in front of.

    One other thing kind of in the same ball park. How do you feel about all the Facebook interaction in regards to class assignments and critiquing samples prior to a class crit which the project is actually being be graded from? I find them interesting in that the students often do not remember that they are gleaning advice from other fellow students and not necessarily qualified individuals. It often creates a scenario where the mistakes that the advising students makes are repeated by the student that sought the advice. They may want to blame the advising student but I have told them that does not work. The work being discussed represents “their” decision to execute and present. I advise them of this thinking but really feel they are often prone to rely on their fellow classmates rather than the advise / thoughts of the instructor. After all they do have 24/7 access to their classmates via these methods. BTW all us instructors have institutional email accounts that are checked regularly and I do my best to respond, as a working professional, within a 24 hour period. That is my policy as my school does not have a specific policy in this regards.

    Take care Chris, it’s good reading you again.


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