A mismatch between curriculum and student desires

I mentioned my sense of a mismatch between curriculum provided by the institution where I work, and the students’ wants, and I wish to clarify this.

In a sense, there will always be a mismatch, or at least a gap: it’s inevitable that young people will want to do some things that their elders don’t want to spend time on or are unwilling to provide for; and conversely, things that others, from their greater experience and wisdom, can see as important and/or necessary which the young cannot as yet see the point of.

Dan Meyer, an ambitious young math teacher, has been banging on about this on and off since he first saw the light: about the importance of capturing students’ attention and imagination, remaining lively, even dramatic:

The truth, if you’re a speaker addressing an audience, is that the only way to get your audience more engaged is to become, yourself, more engaging. There is no shortcut. The solution is simple but not easy and the difference between those two adjectives lies somewhere on your TiVo.

I’m not advocating abandoning all leadership and letting the students lead the way.

Yet I cannot help feel that the gap or mismatch in many points where students contact the curriculum, is huge and multi-dimensional.

In another class, I abandoned all leadership and let students lead the way (!): I asked the students what they wanted to do. One said, “Go for a walk.” These kids parents are paying serious cash so their offspring can have the privilege of spending time with a fully trained language professional (me); they’ve all said clearly that their objective (this is an optional class – they are all volunteers) is to improve their English-speaking abilities. Yet when asked what they want to do, their answer is “goof off”. Where are they at? I sound chiding, but it’s a serious question. I sometimes feel like someone, person or persons unknown, has been seriously messing with these kids’ heads for the last 10 years or so.

In yet another class, a “higher-level” class, according to test results, and certainly they are all very diligent and quick and do well on vocab quizzes, I set them some reading and writing activities (from Touchstone by Mike McCarthy, CUP). I walked around to see how they were getting on. Some were slouched across their desks, apparently gazing at the textbook, but with no pen in hand or paper to be seen. It takes several attempts at conversation before they volunteer that they don’t understand what they are supposed to do, even tho I just explained it twice, once in English, once in their native Japanese. Maybe my Japanese was crap? Who said that? Highly possible, and yet at least half the class got it.

What got me was not just the incomprehension, but the lack of expression. Incomprehension was ok; just give up. I sensed years of being bamboozled in class, of not understanding a word, and yet having been trained not to make that apparent: just sit tight, maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe we won’t have to hand it in, maybe it won’t count, just let it blow over.

I posted many moons ago, about a student who was sitting not doing anything in class. It took at least 10 minutes of talking to her (more like interrogation in that I mostly questioned her) before it became apparent that the cause was she failed to understand a part of the English dialogue they were supposed to be practising. It took a further full 5 minutes of slowly going thru the dialogue with her to identify exactly where she did not understand. Why didn’t she ask? I figure: she’s just not that motivated (she just wants the credits), or she is motivated but this particular material is so numbingly boring she can’t bring herself to practice it, or she’s learned that raising a hand and asking for help is likely to get her a shame-inducing scolding for daring to suggest that the instructor chose inappropriate materials or failed to adequately explain. It’s apparently common for Japanese to get upset when they are asked a question, as it suggests some kind of inadequacy on the part of the instructor and hence borders on insubordination. (This is what I’ve been told by numerous adult Japanese when I asked them why nobody ever asks questions in a class or public lecture).

So many of the students I come across seem tired, bored, apathetic, and seem to have very low expectations of their university classes and teachers. It’s all boring, it’s all unengaging, and that’s par for the course. You just grin and bear it, or lie down, shut your eyes and think of pachinko (or majhong, or pastries, or Keiko, or whatever your fancy is).

4 thoughts on “A mismatch between curriculum and student desires”

  1. So Dan is going to set up “traditionalists” v. School 2.0-ers? Another straw man. I won’t fall for this one, Dan. It’s a phony distinction and you know it.

  2. I reckon I agree. Most traditional teachers probably do too, though the flop-sweat we commit to making the boring topics a little less boring, probably varies by the teacher.

    In a bit of self-referential glibness, I’m gonna make a wiki to catalogue the criticisms, complaints, and hesitations we traditional-style teachers have with the current School 2.0 revolution.

    Using their own tech initiatives to interrogate them. Like they’ll ever see that one coming.

  3. When my students tell me the stuff I am teaching is boring I say “tough”. You don’t have to like everything you learn but you must be exposed to everything otherwise you can’t really know what your interests are. Not liking a subject is not an excuse for not doing well in it.

    Now my bottom kids are a different story. By the time they become seniors, they know what they dislike and most dislike school, particularly math. I just try to impress upon them that math is the gate they must go through to get their diplomas. Once they have that piece of paper, the world opens to them and they can choose what they want to do.

  4. I’m curious how you’d respond to this solution, one which has been proposed by a particular group of educators, many of whose blogs you read:

    Cede instructional control to the student. Let her direct her own learning. Curriculum and student desire will align.

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