Teaching is Imperfectible

Entry One in Maxims for Teachers.

At the end of every semester, most college teachers I know immediately launch into planning what they will do next semester to fix this semester’s problems and letdowns. There are the “I’m Putting My Foot Down” solutions: strict no-cell-phone policies, reading quizzes, and required attendance, all sure to eradicate irritating and counterproductive behaviors. Others vow to “Let Me Make This Absolutely Clear”—next time, they will explain, delineate, and elaborate upon every policy, assignment, and procedure to counter misunderstandings, both willful and accidental. Teachers who declare “Never Again” (again and again) engage in ritual creative destruction, burning their course designs to the ground to rebuild the better beautiful thing, often by “Adopting the New Tool.” Whatever the resolution, we set out to fix vexing problems, believing that if we set up the correct rules, explain what we mean and what we want in sufficient detail, deploy the latest pedagogical practice, or anticipate and curtail students’ wily tricks, self-destructive behaviors, and indifference, that “Next Time Will Be Different.”

When I hear these perennial conversations, I’m reminded that teaching is a fundamentally hopeful activity. Education is based on the belief that people can learn, which means that people can change. Students can finish a class knowing more than when they started, they can have new skills and outlooks, they might even know what they still don’t know, and leave with new questions that they are excited to explore. Recent pedagogical advances reinforce this optimism with science-based knowledge, technological innovations, and evidence-based practices. We know What the Best College Teachers Do and How Learning Works and how to Make It Stick. We practice just-in-time instruction, and scaffold a student’s learning, and craft learning objectives that are SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Most of all, we are expected to “align” learning: to close the loop between what we want students to learn, how we will help them learn it, and to determine to what extent that learning actually happened.

With all these tools and expectations at our disposal, however, I’ve noticed a troublesome trend: the expectation that great teaching doesn’t just optimize learning experiences, but perfects them. These days, many of the best college teachers seem to believe that any difficulties that arise are instructional problems that can ultimately be designed away. This attitude goes well beyond the usual blend of optimism, skill, and fortitude that good teachers bring to their work, semester after semester. Contemporary pedagogy, for all its considerable advantages, has also created the impression that design solutions exist to every conceivable problem, especially if that problem is ensuring that problems do not arise.

It’s a good time to remember that teaching is imperfectible. If this seems like yet another rebuke against perfectionism or a reminder that learning is messy, that’s okay, if it helps. You may find it a relief. (I do.) You might let go of the compulsion to fine-tune every policy to adapt to every fresh or intractable transgression—students will still sometimes arrive late, or multitask, or fail to read. You might even notice that the class you’re trying to fix yet again has actually been good, if not downright excellent. I hope that the idea makes it clear that you are likely a fine teacher doing good work under hard conditions with the best possible tools.

But I actually think that there’s something deeper at work here, with frankly unethical implications. Guided by motivational theories, we may create learning experiences that students are willing to participate in. But great assignments are not incantations that enchant the most recalcitrant student to optimal learning, and motivation can too easily skid into coercion. With the most up-to-date digital tools, students may create presentations that dazzle parents, administrators and the public. But slick products don’t necessarily translate into lasting learning well after the product is complete. SMART goals might make the ends of education clear and achievable, if observable and measurable ends are the only ones that matter.

How we define problems in our teaching reveals fundamental beliefs about education. Over the course of this project, I’ll often explore what’s at stake in problem definition and problem solution. But for now, I want to invite you to consider just what—and who—you are trying to fix, and whether those problems are really problems at all, or just what arises when real people show up to think and learn. What might teaching and learning look if it were neither necessary nor desirable to “perfect” your teaching?

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