Tolerating “poor” teaching

I participate in a few list-servs around CS Education, and over the past 24 hours a thread on one of them has asked the question “Faculty who are poor teachers – why do we tolerate them?”

I responded to one of the posts, and I’d like to share that response here as well. Its going to start with a quote from a message to the list.

… my friends and relatives and neighbors who have
children in high school who are considering where to go to college often ask
me for my advice.  My answer is that one has to know one’s child.  Poor
students who need hand-holding should go to colleges (and some universities)
where teaching is a central focus and graduate and research programs are
either small or non-existent.  That is where they will find “teachers.”

Good students will learn despite everything that may get in their way.
Those students will do well at research universities even as undergraduates
if they realize that education will not be *given* to them at the
university, but it is there for them to *take*.  Such students get involved
with the professors, work in their labs, and learn as much or more from
other students as they do from any professors.  What do you get at name
schools such Harvard and MIT and Stanford and Carnegie Mellon and the like?
Great teaching by the professors?  Sometimes.  Great teaching by fellow
students?  Virtually always.

My response:

I have to admit I’m struggling with how to respond to this.

Over the past four years I have been working with the amazing teachers and students in NYC to help launch CSNYC and the CS4All movement. I have also been a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University.  I taught high school for 8 years in one of the most competitive districts in the nation (constantly in US News top 50) and have taught CS at the local community college. I began my teaching career in a drop-out factory in South Florida, teaching 16 year old students who could not sound out the word “who” in 9th grade. I have experienced the broad range of students and classroom environments in my career.

Many of the statements in the above quote troubled me, and my struggles stem purely from a belief that the author does not see the micro-aggressions embedded in the statements made.

Please take a second and recognize your defenses probably just jumped up.

The first reaction I had was to the phrase “poor students who need hand holding”. I am shocked that in 2016 good pedagogy could still be referred to as ‘hand holding’, let alone be relegated to “poor” students.

Secondly, the implication that students who don’t succeed in poor pedagogical environments are just not working “hard enough” to seek out extra learning experiences reminds me of the Lean In argument. In my own experience, I had to work through undergrad – my father was unemployed, and I took a placement by Work Study as a way to help pay my tuition. I could not have worked in someone’s lab, and actually turned down offers, because I would have lost a significant part of my financial aid package.

If students are struggling to pay tuition, or placing themselves in lifelong debt to attend our institutions, and have cleared the hurdles we put in place for them to get there, should it not be our responsibility to TEACH them? I’m not asking you to change your assessments. Give the same homework, the same tests, just change your delivery.

If two students get the same score on the final exam, do they not have the same knowledge? Does it matter that one teacher used peer instruction? Perhaps engaged in some active learning techniques during lecture? Encouraged students to annotate in their notes and asked them to self explain code?

I hope this message opens a dialog. The poor students who have earned the right to attend institutions like CMU, MIT, and others should not have to forgo those experiences because we “tolerate” poor teachers.

2 Responses to “Tolerating “poor” teaching”

  1. Michael Stewart Says:

    I am on that list as well, and saw your post prior to the one on which you were commenting. I wanted to say thank you for standing up and providing an opportunity for the author to learn, and that I hope they take that opportunity.

  2. George Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I like your response. I will add one point.

    I dislike the use of term like “good student”. It conveys a judgment on the student as well as a ranking. Both are odious. Referring to students in accelerated courses as “good” reinforces their separation and implies their intellectual and moral superiority. The sorting of our students is always open to question. It is rarely in the interest of the “poor” students. The challenge that our –good teachers– must meet is to teach all students.

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