Didactic teaching v. dogmatism

Didactic teaching needn’t be dogmatic, and interactive teaching doesn’t always encourage critical thinking or independence of mind.

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” &#8212 which was, and is, my reaction to that novel &#8212 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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

5 thoughts on “Didactic teaching v. dogmatism”

  1. I had to respond to the "high point" of your fall quarter, being that (indeed, grateful) member of Bruin Democrats whose head you messed with in 10A.
    As for the previous entry's assertion of professors "doing our thinking for [us]," I figure that professors are simply exposing us to new viewpoints and challenging concepts that we wouldn't have seen otherwise. Generally, we are at liberty to disagree with professors' (or TAs') ideology in papers, on exams, etc. as long as we show that we can support our argument.
    Anyway, I am a faithful reader of this particular blog, and danced around a little bit after reading that anecdote. Thank you!

  2. (a) I happen to like Silas Marner.
    (b) In some fields (science, say), there is so much prior art to communicate that it just has to be dumped on students as fast as is practicable. And let those who can respond well to this torrent survive. I feel sure that many more students could become proficient at math (my field) if they were slowly led down the path, with explanations from many points of view, with the trying out of different ways of solving problems, with connections made to other fields of knowledge, etc. But that would be time consuming and labor intensive, so it isn't done. (Here, by proficient, I mean to understand and be able to carry out calculations in advanced undergrad topics — say, solve simple ordinary and partial differential equations, program numerical linear algebra algorithms, understand the Black-Scholes model).

  3. RtR,
    It's true that there's an enormous amount of background info for science students to learn… One possible downside to this: science education may be chasing out a lot of kids who are more interested in reasoning than memorization. Many such people flee to philosophy, and, in fact, that's a common type of philosophy student–the former science student who just couldn't stand to keep his reasoning module in neutral long enough to get through introductory science classes.
    This is not to attempt to make a virtue of impatience. And the typical intellectual vices of philosophers are well-known. But I think the sciences would be much better off if they could figure out how to integrate more complex reasoning into more introductory classes. (Physics seems best at this.) We want to keep good reasoners in the sciences…and we especially don't want a system that weeds out–at the introductory levels–the very people with the skills that are most valuable at the most advanced levels.

  4. glad to see you managed to get one Haverford teacher – the late, great Paul Desjardins – into the list of great teachers you cited. In my own case the ones from that institution who inspired me to think, albeit in different ways were Aryeh Kosman, Bill Reese, John Davison, and Roger Lane.
    I also find it interesting that you point out examples of where your own reasoning has been flawed, and different ways of looking at things. I have had parents of very conservative kids tell me that their children have found my class a safe place to express their viewpoints in a predominantly liberal environment and I have had more liberal students telling me that it was the first time they had their thinking challenged. I wonder if the fact we have that in common is in anyway connected to having attended an undergraduate institution in which many of the faculty approached thinking in a similarly challenging way?

  5. "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."
    You may very well think that, but you would be wrong. It largely depends on the nature of the activities you use in class, of course — all activities are not created equal — but from a cognitive point of view the goal is to precipitate a failure of expectations.
    Allow me to tell my "going to work" parable. Every day, I take the same route to work, make the same turns, stop at the same lights, and so on. It happens that the first few turns are the same as the route to the grocery store. Sometimes, I start thinking about stuff or listening to the radio and even though I set out to go buy groceries, I end up half way to work instead. This is called a capture error. What has happened is that I have memory structures called scripts that organize my actions, and unroll automatically once initiated, and the going-to-work script and the grocery-store script start with the same motions. However, due to its more frequent usage, the going-to-work script has a much higher activation priority so if I am not paying attention, it takes over automatically.
    When you think about it, this is a remarkably useful and compact way to store memories (similar structures, called schemas, are responsible for abstract thinking memories). Most of the memories you have of regular events in your life are not memories at all — they are reconstructions based on the script for that action. You store one generic memory in place of hundreds of specific ones.
    Now it happens that one day I was going to work and my way was blocked because the city had dug up the road to work on a water line. I had to backtrack and go a different way. I have that stored as an individual memory, not a modification to the script, because on most days the script will still work. It is more useful to store a special case that sits alongside the script rather than changing the way I think. So my memory is organized into one generic memory to fit the usual cases, plus some special cases to store the few exceptions. Pretty crafty, eh? Is it starting to remind you of the way your students think?
    There is, however, a circumstance under which the script will change. Suppose the state decides to widen the expressway and in so doing cuts off one of the roads I follow to work. The first two or three times, I might follow the old route, reach the dead end, curse a bit and backtrack. But eventually I will stop going that way to work — the script changes. But why? It did not change because I willed it to change else I wouldn't have made those two or three mistakes. It did not change because the script failed since it also failed the time the water main was worked on. No, it changed in response to REPEATED failure. I expected to be able to act a specific way and that action was incompatible with reality. The script changed automatically, and unconsciously, in response to that repeated failure.
    This is a general feature of human learning and memory and it explains why lectures generally don't work for most people — they are too passively involved. Their expectations don't fail, not even once, because they don't have any expectations. They are watching a movie and waiting for it to reveal the next plot turn. My job as a teacher, then, has less to do with telling them what is right than it does with creating situations where what my students think is right will fail and so that they need to know what I know in order to work their way out of the dead end. That is what a teachable moment looks like.
    As a teacher, then, I have to accomplish two tasks: change or add to the schemas that my students use, and adjust the activation priorities of the new schemas relative to the old ones. The second is actually harder to accomplish because it requires integration with experience, and wrestling with applicability conditions, learning when to grab the new memory rather than the old one, or reorganizing the linkages between related schemas that may have been established a very long time ago and are correspondingly robust.
    So I had the opportunity a few years ago to probe a group of students' understanding of some difficult concepts by looking at them repeatedly, about every 1.5 weeks, for 12 weeks. I saw a curious pattern. They started off knowing very little, as you would expect. About 4 weeks in they began studying the target concept and exhibited what appeared to be perfect understanding. By about 6 weeks in they had fallen backward to a prior state of understanding, not all the way back but measurably less accurate than at 4 weeks. At the end, they finally came back to what they had been able to do originally at 4 weeks and then lost.
    In developmental psychology, this is called U-shaped development and it is a general feature of skills that are composed of multiple subskills which develop at different rates. When I interviewed these students during the dip in their understanding, I found that they still had the same knowledge that they had at 4 weeks, but it wasn't the first thing they reached for. Instead, they went for their original, higher priority, misunderstandings. In-class discussions revolved around arguments over whether this new concept could possible apply in this particular case. This is exactly what I expect based on the schema model. And it has important implications for an effective learning environment. For two: just because a student seems to understand something doesn't mean they're finished learning it, and also it is unfair to assess the understanding at a single point in time — you might hit the dip instead of the peak and get an inaccurate assessment.
    Now you might think from all of this that I must teach psychology or maybe education. I don't. I have deliberately obscured the fact that I am a physicist, and the concept that was causing these students such difficulty was Newton's Third Law. But I do think that if I am going to be a teacher, of anything, anywhere, it is incumbent on me to shape my instruction according to what is known about human memory, learning and cognitive development. Anything else would be irresponsible. Simply knowing your subject and being a sparkling lecturer is just not sufficient. I know. I started my career doing just that.
    I also take issue with previous commenters' assertions that in science students must be sprayed with a deluge of information like a firehose. This is a naive view of scientific epistemology. The central content of science is not facts — it is general laws and associated reasoning patterns, and there aren't very many of them. All the facts that fly by are no more than specific instances of these generalities. If what you learned were the facts, then your science class was a failure. It focused your attention on the wrong things. I will assert my position as a domain expert to claim that the ONLY content of the first semester of introductory physics is Newton's Laws, Work-Energy, Impulse-Momentum, and multiple representation problem solving. Whatever else you may have stuffed your head with was only useless details, from the point of view of a physicist, only opportunities to deploy these general principles.
    This is probably the longest comment in the history of blogdom so I'll stop it with the recommendation that every faculty member, no matter what your discipline, should read (at a minimum) Bransford, Brown and Cocking, How People Learn, National Academies Press, 1999. You can buy it a zillion places, but if you want to try before you buy, the entire text is on the National Academies of Science web page. If you want to go beyond the minimum, you should also read the companion book Knowing What Students Know.
    I should also say that the lecture can be a quite useful educational tool but only under the right circumstances. If a student has generated a need to know something in response to an ongoing activity, that moment is the right time for a lecture. The right time is NEVER because the faculty member has reached the next atomic unit of content. Further, a lecture can be transformed from a passive to an active experience through the use of the right tools. I can create a need to know by deliberately precipitating a failure of expectations. I have many ways of doing this, but they have common features. I can, for example, have my students commit themselves IN WRITING to a predicted outcome of an experiment before I run it, having carefully chosen said experiment knowing that the bulk of newcomers to physics always make the wrong predictions, and that those wrong predictions fall into a few general categories. This is called an interactive demonstration. So when they see a graph that looks different from the one they predicted . . . . that schema is in peril, and I have done my job.

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