Thursday, January 12, 2012

Correction in the Classroom

Someone somewhere recently brought up this article from last summer by Peter Boghossian, in which he expresses both his complete cluelessness about something that anyone with a significant education should have figured out, namely, that most professors do not regard it as reasonable or practically effective pedagogical practice to go about directly attacking student's opinions, and affirms with every uncritical cliche in the book his resolution to teach students critical thinking:

Should professors attempt to change students’ beliefs by consistently challenging false beliefs with facts?

I believe that this is exactly what our role should be. My colleagues’ intense, unexpected, yet understandable reaction to my failed attempt change the mind of a student, I believe, fundamentally misconstrues what the role of educators should be. I believe our role as educators should be to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence.

There are a number of problems, of course, with Boghossian's entire argument. The first and most important, of course, is that education is by its nature a cooperative venture; teachers can't force knowledge into student heads. And that means without any doubt that one of the things teachers have to work for is the cooperation of the students themselves. We see this problem rear its head almost immediately in the article with Boghossian's clueless bafflement that his fellow instructors would be even more shocked by Boghossian's insistence when he read the comment made by the student. Obviously any such comment clearly indicates that the student has completely given up not just cooperation but any real possibility of it. Some students, of course, never give cooperation in the first place, and others are just overly inclined to give up at the slightest difficulty; but usually if they go out of their way to mention it that means something went terribly wrong. Sometimes it's not the professor's fault, sometimes it is, but when students go through the motions and then stubbornly insist that they are only going through the motions because they've been forced to do so, something has gone wrong.

In practice recognition of this means that most professors who put some thought into their pedagogy pick very carefully their hills to die on. If Boghossian had offered a topic-specific argument, i.e., that professors should work harder to provide accurate information to students on this or that topic (e.g., evolution, which seems to be an issue that Boghossian has in mind) rather than let inaccuracies slide, I would be much more sympathetic. But there are lots of situations where it is obviously better either just to encourage the students to look into the matter further, providing resources, or to aim for a more attainable goal than correction (e.g., getting them simply to recognize some attractions of the opposing side).

And even then professors need to take into account that their credibility to students is not unlimited; students do not just assume that professors know what they are talking about, although they are usually willing to defer quite a bit if the professor seems competent in general, seems not to be pushing a prejudice, and is clearly talking about a field he or she has studied extensively. If any one of these conditions fails, though, the attempt to correct students directly can backfire. On biological matters, students will, all other things being equal, respect the claims of a biology professor more than those of a philosophy professor, of a well-credentialed and obviously deeply informed professor over any other, and of a genial professor over one who seems abusive or confrontational. And note that it's not even about what one really is; you can be the best informed person in the world, talking completely objectively, out of a genuine love for your students, and if the students don't get that impression, it's almost for nothing. You'll simply be convincing the students that you can't be trusted, either because you are ignorant, or because you are prejudiced, or because you are stupid. There will be students who will end up thinking this no matter what; but there is good reason to avoid recklessly pushing students into deciding all at once, on a single issue or a small collection of issues, that you either are right or ignorant/prejudiced/stupid. In part because for a lot of practical reasons the latter option is going to be much easier for students to take.

This gets into the whole critical thinking issue. Apparently Boghossian doesn't grasp this fact, but there is a form of critical thinking most students engage in a lot. They don't always do it optimally -- indeed, I think there is a good argument that they usually do not -- but they do it constantly. And this form of critical thinking is the assessment of whether a professor is worth learning from at all. When it comes to such an issue, they are not really very trusting, and not inclined to give much benefit of the doubt. If professors really want to go around correcting every incorrect thing a student says, they need to be constantly proving to the students that they are fair, trustworthy, and informed. This is harder to do than it sounds, and modern universities and colleges are not really set up to make it easier. One of the signs of excellent pedagogical practice is when instructors can with some regularity start with students actively suspicious of them -- there are always a few, and under some conditions more than a few -- and at least by the end of the term convince some of them that they can afford to be more open-minded in this context and take the opposing arguments seriously.

This is complicated by the fact that students don't grow up in academia. They are used to the idea that there are people who disagree with them, but they aren't usually used to direct correction. They, unlike Boghossian, do not start with the assumption that professors, or anyone else, has the right to tell them they are wrong. They'll accept that professors get to set the hoops they have to jump through to get through the obstacle course of college, they'll generally accept that you can suggest that other views are better, but many students come in inclined to treat direct correction, where they have not clearly already consented to it, as attack or power play. And this is amplified by the consumerist attitudes of many students, which sometimes leads them to think that professors are being paid to deliver a much narrower service than professors are actually paid to deliver. (This came up in my Ethics class, twice, last fall. It was a really great group of students, one of the best classes I've had, but they were occasionally frustrated, particularly when studying Kant, that I didn't just tell them the answers but made them work through them on their own or as a class. And twice they told me that they were paying me to give them the answers. To which I replied that if they were paying me I would be charging them a lot more than the college did; and that the college, which actually was paying me, was not paying me to do things their way but to do whatever I deem fit as long as it meets the standards of the college and the department. As I said, it was actually a great class; and the fact that they even dared say it straight to my face says something about how well the class and I were getting along. But you can tell from evaluations and the like that students often think it even if they won't say it.) These problems can be handled, but, again, it requires that professors prove their integrity by working with the students in a way that students will generally see as fair, by showing competence in their field, and by starting where the students are, at least to the limited extent that current college set-up allows that. You don't teach children to take medicine simply by forcing it down their throats at any cost; if you do that, all you teach them is that they can't avoid doing things your way when you're around. They have to come to see themselves that it's a good thing, and that's much harder. And students are not really different. Spoon full of sugar, and all that. This is really part of why Boghossian's colleagues were aghast at his position. They no doubt believe that "students must cross the boundary between knowledge and belief," although this way of using the terminology is somewhat eccentric; what Boghossian fails to grasp is that they are not denying this. They are denying that Boghossian is achieving it by the means he is using.

But there is a more serious issue here. I agree with Boghossian's claim that one of our roles as educators should be "to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence," although I doubt I understand it in quite the way he does, but the most fundamental thing about this is that you can't teach it except by example. You cannot teach the value of critical examination and revision in light of facts unless they see you yourself critically examining your ideas and revising them in light of evidence. Anyone who thinks he is succeeding at teaching critical thinking when students cannot see the professor himself practice it is deluding himself (and, again, it's what the students can see that matters). This makes it a very hard thing, because as a professor you have a very limited window in which to teach by example, just a few hours a week over a few months, and these are hours in which a lot already has to be done. And the simple fact of the matter is that students aren't seeing you engaging in critical thinking if you are correcting them all the time. All they see is that you are so certain that you are right that you think everyone else has to agree with you. To be sure, you may be right; but you are delusional if you think it's teaching them critical thinking.

So if the point is not merely to correct students what is it? That surely is obvious, and it's what most professors are really aiming for: exposure that allows for understanding. Understanding can't be forced, but we can do a lot to make it more likely, simply by exposing students to what they didn't know before. And when we recognize this as the better end, we recognize that correction still has an important place: we correct students when they have outright misunderstood the issue, or have clearly misconstrued the arguments, or are overlooking some serious evidence, and we try to do so in such a way that leaves them open-minded enough that the arguments and evidence have a chance of working on their own. That is, we set them up for successful self-correction. There are still times when I would be willing to risk burning all my credibility to convince a student of something -- usually when the error in question is clearly preventing them from even understanding the alternatives. And then there's the housekeeping kind of correction -- this is directly relevant to the course, this is the only answer that is going to be accepted as correct, this is why, and, yes, it will be on the test. But, of course, this doesn't get you any farther than the sort of student who wrote the comment Boghossian mentions at the beginning of his article. Most of the time I'll just say, "Well, I'm not convinced of that myself, for such-and-such reasons," or "Most people think otherwise, because &c." and move on; particularly if it is only loosely relevant to the immediate discussion. Sometimes, if it's on a really important issue, everything else gets set aside, and, instead of simply 'correcting' the student, the whole course is diverted temporarily into looking at the background of the problem, the evidence, the arguments, and so forth. And then there are cases when it's just not worth the precious time it would burn to handle the matter properly, but students are nonetheless clearly thinking things through more carefully, and the only reasonable thing to do is let it slide and trust that their thought will work itself out.

The biggest mistake an instructor can make, I think, is to focus too narrowly on the course itself. In many cases our best successes have not been achieved by the end of the course; they are sometimes achieved when it's only down the road that the student grasps the point. As teachers we cannot afford only to look at the fact that a student is, here and now, wrong; we need to set things up so that, at least in principle, students who are wrong now will come to see on their own how they were wrong, even if it takes three more years. To be sure it takes a little trust that Boghossian doesn't seem to have: a little trust that students can figure things out on their own if they are only given the right resources and enough time, a little trust that it's often better for them to learn by discovery rather than by rote, a little trust that gentle exposure to evidence and arguments and encouragement not to dismiss them out of hand will work in the long run, and a little trust that you are running your course well enough that students will take seriously your view even if they are not inclined to agree and even if you don't press it very forcefully. But (1) this is the better path of pedagogy; and (2) given our limitations of resources and time, it's often the best we can do anyway. And it is the task of the teacher not to shape students but to help them shape themselves in a better way than they otherwise would. Simply trying to force students to accept things they aren't inclined to accept is not teaching but perversion.