Since I teach the sort of courses Mike criticizes, perhaps I should come to the defense of the “assign readings, lecture and give objective-answer tests” approach. One objection to that approach is that it doesn’t encourage critical thinking. But that seems to me to depend as much on the content of the course as it does on the form.
It’s easy to teach a course that encourages students to think critically but in effect insists that they criticize the same things the instructor criticizes, and in the same way. It’s probably easier to write a paper that tells the instructor what he wants to hear than it is to give the right answers on a test requiring short-form answers and calculations; the difference is that writing the paper requires the student to simulate the appropriate opinions while the exam doesn’t.
(I still remember with loathing being required in high-school literature classes to write essays about novels, poems, and plays which I had read but to which I didn’t respond to at all. It was clear that “Silas Marner wasn’t worth reading, and I only wish the author had suffered as badly as her characters and her readers” — which was, and is, my reaction to that novel — simply didn’t count as an appropriately “critical” response.)
On the other hand, it’s completely possible to be didactic without being dogmatic. I try to be careful to say at the beginning of each course something like “This is one way to look at these phenomena; I don’t claim that it’s The Truth about them, but I’m asking that you suspend your criticism of this approach to the topic until you understand what it means to those of us who think it valid.” I also say that my remarks about methods of analysis should be taken as authoritative within context of the discipline of policy analysis, but that my opinions about actual policies are merely my opinions, and that it is no part of the purpose of the course to have the students’ opinions conform to mine.
Moreover, when I teach about matters of controversy such as drug policy and crime control, I’m careful to include a healthy dose of readings from those whose views don’t match mine, and to emphasize, within the lecture format, points of controversy, aspects of the problem that a narrow definition of “policy analysis” might miss, and instances (of which there are plenty) in which some previous view of mine which I regarded as a fairly robust analytic conclusion proved to be wrong descriptively or theoretically or where actions taken on the basis of that conclusion turned out badly.
If student reports are to be believed, my conservative students find me unusually sympathetic to their viewpoints, while my liberal students find me unusually challenging. (The high point of my fall quarter was when a member of the Bruin Democrats, carrying the placard she was about to display as part of an organizing effort, came up to me after my lecture on Schelling’s “Economic Reasoning and the Ethics of Policy” and said, with apparent gratitude, “You really messed with my head!”)
Not that Mike is wrong to say that the current classroom activity mix could be usefully moved in the direction of providing the students with more experience doing things rather than listening to things. He’s certainly right. But it seems to me that most of the gain from that approach would be increased attention and emotional involvement, leading to increased retention of the material, rather than in boosting critical-thinking skills. After all, having people do things simulates the workplace, which is on average noticeably less fostering of critical activity than is the typical classroom.
I’ve been the beneficiary of great lecturers (Mike Walzer, Harvey Mansfield), great seminar teachers (Paul Desjardins, Tom Schelling) and great case-method teachers (Phil Heymann). And I’ve tried all three approaches myself; it turns out that I’m a very effective lecturer, a decent seminar leader, and a rotten case-method teacher. Better, I think, to find your natural strength and play to it than to bend yourself all out of shape trying to fit yourself within a particular pedagogic tradition. The right mix can be accomplished at the level of the program or department rather than at the level of the individual faculty member.