What happened when you had control?

I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced anything that could loosely be called control of a situation but the time that everyone seems to think of that way is the relationship between teacher and student. Since I’m a teacher and have taught in various environments, I can certainly say that control is definitely the wrong word for what goes on in a classroom — I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in a classroom where there was a serious control situation rather than a relationship in which the students agreed to be peaceful and let the teacher teach but I haven’t, not as a student and not as a teacher.

But it’s an interesting concept. I believe it’s important for the teacher and students to have a mutual respect. If you try to do this with rules and instructions, as soon as you turn your back or leave the room for a few minutes, the entire situation will fall apart. You’ve certainly been in a classroom when the teacher has left and within thirty seconds, it sounds like a bar ten minutes before closing time. There’s yelling and movement and nothing is getting done. That’s the other piece. If there’s no respect floating around, the students aren’t going to trust you that what you’ve set as work is useful — if it’s actually just busy work, at least you can be honest and say that’s what it is and that the school or curriculum has made it necessary and that you’ll move on to something a bit more relevant as soon as possible. Honesty is absolutely necessary or you’ll very quickly lose any respect you’ve worked hard to build up. It’s easy to say that because you’re older or more experienced that you shouldn’t have to earn students’ respect but that’s nothing but ego and hubris talking — everyone needs to earn the respect of the people around them, especially people who are supposed to be in a situation where they trust you with their knowledge and minds, realistically much of their future. You hold a huge amount of what they’re going to become in your hands and if they’re going to take on trust that you know what you’re doing and have their best interests in mind, you’ve got to give them something in return and not just expect it.

Here’s the other thing that comes to mind when I think about control — learning is far more distributed than it’s ever been. You’re not the only source of knowledge in that room. There was a time not long ago — I was a student during that period that definitely extended into the 90s — when the teacher was in the room to share knowledge. That’s not the case anymore. If the teacher left and the students had to figure something out, there wouldn’t have to be someone incredibly smart in the class who had all the answers. Each student could take out their phone and look it up. Knowledge really isn’t the purpose of a teacher anymore. It was true not very long ago that sharing knowledge was a large part of a teacher’s job — the largest part was still always sharing an understanding and developing students’ minds as to how to learn in the future but that’s now become pretty much the only purpose of being in a classroom.

Sometimes (almost all the time, honestly) teachers at this point in time forget that the information floating around on Wikipedia and various other internet sources is probably at least as good and often far better than what they can share from their own notes and experience. It’s not that the teacher is stupid (at least, it’s not always the case) but that the people writing most of these articles are doing so collaboratively and don’t have to fit their information into an hour of on-the-fly provision of information. I can write a fantastic article in a weekend on many topics but I’m never going to reach that level of precision and accuracy if I have to speak about it off the top of my head in front of an audience. I’ll get reasonably close to what I could do if I prepare it well but I can’t expect to outdo a team of authors with an unlimited amount of time to prepare and many revisions for accuracy and precision. Nobody can. Even true world-class experts in the field won’t reach that level and many of those experts are the ones responsible for much of the online content in the first place. If you think the point of teaching is to share information, it’s time to sit down and let the students just read — it’s better information and they’ll learn it more quickly. You’re there for explanations and understanding, not for raw data.

So what does this have to do with control? Well, one of the biggest and silliest things that schools (and many colleges) have done over the past decade is to introduce regulations about electronic information in classes. No phones, no tablets, no laptops… I’m not sure exactly where this became seen as necessary. Do people really think that students have no understanding of how not to be distracted? They are perfectly capable of sitting and watching a movie without being distracted by their phones. They can chill with their friends, do very little and not get distracted by them in any meaningful way. If your students are getting distracted, it’s your fault. You haven’t given them a reason to trust you or a reason to pay attention. Not to mention, you’re supposed to be teaching them how to function in the real world — out there, there’s not going to be a school policy saying you can’t have your phone. If they haven’t learned how to exist in a world that is full of potential distractions and not actually get sidetracked, you’re teaching them to fail and that is something you should probably feel pretty ashamed about.

The other thing — and this has been an issue since I was a young student, too, but is far worse now — that causes a huge problem in terms of disconnection from the real world due to control is evaluation without aids. If you’re working on something, you will have reference materials. You’ll have your own personal stuff and the ability to check just about anything you want on the internet. It’s not like thirty or forty years ago when reference books were a long drive away and a search in a card catalog. Information is right at our fingers and to deny students access to that information is just creating an artificial environment.

I know why this has been done and how it became popular, long before the internet became the dominant method of information provision. It makes it easier to evaluate because you don’t have to be creative. You can just test people’s rote learning skill and that’s easy enough to measure. You can give problems pretty much right out of a textbook and if everyone solves it the same way, that’s not an issue because people can’t talk to each other or it’s called cheating. It’s the wrong system. It doesn’t reflect any sort of work environment in the world. If you can’t remember how to do something in today’s world, you can look it up. If you need help, you can get it.

So what we need to be teaching is the ability to find how to do something, apply it, accept help, work collectively and do so in a manner that is efficient. We need to work on a deadline and produce the required result. There is almost no evaluation in our schools and colleges that does this. At the graduate level, there is quite a bit more — we call it research and writing a dissertation. There’s no rule about not using resources to help you create a better research project or write a better dissertation chapter. Neither should there be in college or in school. This would take a massive shift. It would take a huge giving up of control.

What happened when I had control? Letting aside the fact that control is an illusion, I gave it up. In every classroom that I’ve ever been in charge of, the paradigm of learning has been collective trust and understanding. I don’t make students learn things by memory — I try to create an understanding of the overarching ideas so they don’t have to memorize and can simply figure things out as needed. I build evaluations that are designed to test their creative skills to solve real problems in the discipline. I ask questions that they can’t simply copy answers for out of a book or from the internet and, since those things become supporting information rather than sources of duplication, there is no need to regulate their use even during an examination. Further, I allow resubmission of all work an unlimited number of times — this seems unworkable but when it comes down to it, I can read a student’s changes a hundred times faster than they can make them so I’m always going to come out on top and few students will ever submit a paper more than three or four times and few in a class will make anything other than small additions and changes to improve the overall work. I’ve never felt even slightly bogged down by this policy and I can’t imagine changing it. I would encourage all instructors at all levels to do it. It also means that my grades reflect the students’ actual capacity to put the topics of the class into use at the end of the term, as the final versions of all the work are the ones that are completed by the end of the term — not understanding at first is not held against you but understanding well by the end is clearly demonstrated by the grade rather than it being a holdover from the easier work at the beginning being done well and then dropped off.

Control is an illusion, at least in a classroom. I’m not sure how well I understood that as a student but I’m sure I had a pretty good idea of how close we were in most of my classes to the mob taking over and driving the teacher both crazy and into retirement. I hope my relationship with my students will always be one where I hold the reigns of control lightly and am allowed to do so by a calm and quiet policy of mutual respect rather than having the need for discipline — I always get worried about teacher who talk about “classroom discipline” because they’re working on a whip-the-deviant-students model, even if they don’t have the whip in hand.