Why Do I Have To Take This Class?

Why Do I Have to Take THIS Class?!?!?

As an English and Communication Skills instructor at a college that offers neither of these as a major, I am faced with that question fairly often. I also imagine college recruiters proudly telling my future students things like: “Don’t go to that other college and waste your time and money studying things like Russian Literature, Ancient Greek Mythology, or Documentary Filmmaking in the 1920’s. If you want to be a welder, we’ll teach you to weld…PERIOD!!”

Two months later, that student is sitting in my general studies course. He’s mad. He doesn’t like me. He thinks I am Russian Literature.

All general studies instructors have faced this issue at one time or another. Attempting to show how the competencies of our general education courses are not just hoops the college makes students jump through to gain more of their money, is a constant battle. It is also, of course, an extremely important one.

The short list of ideas presented here is not exhaustive, by any means. Neither is it an attempt to reinvent the wheel. These ideas may even seem obvious, and good teachers are likely already doing them often. Still, they are offered here because even the most seasoned professionals can use a little reminder once in a while.

Cultivating and maintaining a culture of productive learning may rely heavily on the ability of the teacher leader to keep the learner engaged. To be truly productive though, there must be a connection between that which is engaging, and the students’ perception of value. The activity (a film, scavenger hunt, jeopardy game, etc.) then is not merely a means to entertain, but rather offers the learner the opportunity to understand the concepts and ideas of their discipline in a deeper, more personal way.

Making students aware that your intention is to make your class “worth their time” is a good start toward gaining trust. The next step may be adapting lessons so there is a connectedness to the learner. One way to connect to a learner is to assess what their interests are (specifically related to their fields of study) and attempt to apply the concepts of your discipline to those. Connecting to the learner begins with an effort to understand who the learner is (and what they perceive to be of value).

The main idea behind lean principles in the classroom, of course, is to eliminate waste, improve the quality and relevance of the course materials, and deliver greater value as perceived by students. Students should frequently see lectures, activities, assignments, and even the incorporation of employability skills (aka core abilities) as less ambiguous, and gain a specific understanding of why these things apply to them. The more students can see that events in the classroom have practical application, the less they feel their time is being wasted.

These ideas coincide well with John Dewey’s (1963) seminal writings on collateral learning. He wrote:

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only that particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning…may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned (p. 48).

Have you had good luck showing students the value in your collateral classroom activities? Please share any best practices that have worked for you.

Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. London: Collier.

One thought on “Why Do I Have To Take This Class?

  1. I process with my class a series of articles on soft skills that have been published over the past several years and here is one of the articles:

    In an article in the Green Bay Press Gazette, January 23, 2011, “ ‘soft skills’ add competitive advantage for job candidates” the emphasis is not just on the skills acquired in one’s core courses (the culture of evidence), but is now on conflict resolution, leadership skills, the ability to work effectively with a group, and the willingness to innovate. Jim Golemeski, executive director of Bay Area Workforce Development states that “Companies are looking for attitude and character…do your values as a worker match the values of the company?” One’s character, integrity, positive attitude become fundamental to one’s success in the work place. Golemski highlights and emphasizes the importance of science, math, social studies, language arts, and Spanish coupled with innovation, adaptability, and problem solving. Hopefully we are not just teaching for the “culture of evidence” which may indicate positive gains, however, has that knowledge been integrated and assimilated into one’s character as a human being who will be successful in the ever-changing world? Perhaps we should emphasize more the process of lighting a fire within as we journey with our students through the semester. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous phrase from “I have a dream” which I have taken the liberty to paraphrase – let us not focus on the color of one’s skin ( facts, figures, terms, and memorization), but rather on the content of one’s character ( assimilation, integration, and application of knowledge ). Otherwise, other students may write what the student had written, “It made me wonder if I even knew what I thought I knew as well as I thought I knew it.” I am reminded of a quote by the poet Yeats, “Education is not filling a bucket with water, rather it is lighting a fire within.”
    In my Introduction to Ethics and Thinking Critically and Creatively courses, I would be remiss if I just emphasized the culture of evidence, that is, yes, the students can accurately identify terms such as ethics, conscience, virtue, fallacies, inductive/deductive reasoning, and a litany of other related terms which are perhaps forgotten soon thereafter – so much for the product. Rather the word ethics comes from the Greek word, “ethos” which means character and “virtus” are the virtue or values one lives in the workplace, at home, and in society as the Press Gazette article emphasized. Does the culture of evidence measure this? Do my methodologies allow for such a change and transformation to take place in the lives of students? Maybe we have to learn first how to unlearn. The Sufis call this the “culture of trance.” We know how unsuccessful the “No Child Left Behind” program faired. Teachers were teaching for the exam – culture of evidence. The next step is to learn how to learn once we have learned how to unlearn. John Holt, in his book How Children Fail says it this way, “What we can best learn from good teachers is how to teach ourselves better.” He refers to the superiority of training one’s ability to learn (culture of processing) over merely exercising our capacity to remember ( as measured by the culture of evidence – product). “Learning is not the accumulation of knowledge (product), rather learning is movement from moment to moment” (process). Krishnamurti. My students complete a final comprehensive that measures process more than product – the introduction reads:
    This final review does not measure your ability to memorize, but rather to understand, to apply, to problem solve, to paraphrase, to analyze, to evaluate, to compare –in other words, to exhibit some of the qualities of a critical thinker. Completing this course is not the end of your journey, but only the beginning as expressed by the poet, T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets

    “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And to know the place for the first time.”

    Let us come back to the final sentence the student wrote reflecting on her learning product or process?? “It made me wonder if I even knew what I thought I knew as well as I thought I knew it.” What will it be, a bucket or a fire? The fire includes the bucket, but I do not think that bucket necessarily includes the fire. No, I am not referring to having a “bucket list.”
    The culture of evidence or the culture of process, which one is it? The culture of process includes the culture of evidence, but I do not think the culture of evidence necessarily includes the culture of process.

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