When I came up for my reappointment review three years into my professorial career, I was given a list of required materials to submit, which included a “statement of teaching philosophy.” The same thing had been required for my job application, and at that time, I wrote about techniques and methods that had seemed particularly useful to me as a student (I had basically no teaching experience when I was hired), so for my reappointment, I wrote a statement looking back at what I wrote when I applied and talking about how I tried to incorporate those things into my teaching.
I passed the review (obviously), but after I had passed, I had an extremely awkward meeting with the dean, who dismissed what I had written as just being “pedagogy.” She was looking for something “more philosophical,” and what I had written clearly wasn’t what she was looking for at all.
I thought of this when reading this blog post about education linked by Rhett Allain on Twitter, which spins off a story from the business world:
“I’m supposed to make this brochure for the client, but the client won’t tell me what they want. All this lady says is, ‘the brochure needs to be exceptional.’ So I give her a cool brochure, she rejects it, and her only explanation is, ‘It’s not exceptional enough.’ I re-do the brochure, thinking that this has got to be exceptional, only to get rejected again because, ‘it’s not exceptional enough.’ When I ask her to give me some details or hints about what her kind of exceptional might look like, she says in this snooty voice, ‘if you don’t know what exceptional looks like, then maybe we shouldn’t be working together.’”
This is the starting point for a call for more transparency in education– that is, for making expectations and feedback on those expectations clear when giving and grading assignments. Which is kind of hard to be against, given that pretty much everyone has some experience sort of like the above, running afoul of somebody with very definite expectations for a vaguely worded assignment.
Rhett also linked to this video from Dan Meyer, whose advice for educators is always to “be less helpful.” That is, by being overly specific in statements of problems and providing examples, most teachers crush students’ ability to think, instead turning them into textbook-repeating robots (and he’s no fan of modern textbooks, either). And listening to Meyer talk about how he runs math classes does, in fact, sound really cool and inspiring.
Which means there’s a certain tension between these two aspects of teaching. That is, you need to be helpful, in terms of providing clear feedback and expectations, but not too helpful in leading students through their assignments. If you’re too obvious about what you want, you’re just going to get dozens of papers parroting back exactly what you said in class or on the assignment.
And when you get out of school, eventually you’re going to run into somebody like that client or my former dean, who has very definite ideas about what they want for something they describe only in vague and unhelpful terms. Learning how to deal with vague but weirdly particular superiors is probably as useful a career skill as any of the specific mathematical techniques we teach.
I wish I had some insight on how to thread this particular needle– how to be specific enough that students don’t feel ambushed by the grading criteria, but vague enough to teach them how to think for themselves in a useful way. Sadly, I don’t. If you do, please leave pointers in the comments, because this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, without really getting anywhere.