Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Utah professor fired for asking students questions in class

This practice is called the "Socratic method" in law schools, though most of the time it's not really that similar to the way Socrates conducted philosophical discussions. At all events, not everyone likes it. From Inside Higher Ed:
Some students didn't take well to Steven Maranville’s teaching style at Utah Valley University. They complained that in the professor’s “capstone” business course, he asked them questions in class even when they didn't raise their hands. They also didn't like it when he made them work in teams.

Those complaints against him led [to] the university denying him tenure – a decision amounting to firing, according to a lawsuit Maranville filed against the university this month. [....]

A twist in Maranville's case is that he gave up tenure at the University of Houston to come to Utah Valley, with the expectation that he would be awarded tenure there after a year. He is now an associate professor at Westminster College, in Salt Lake City, and his suit says that he earns considerably less than he did in his previous position. [....]

Maranville followed the Socratic teaching style and described his way of teaching as "engaged learning," according to court documents. Those records describe teaching approaches designed to go beyond lectures. He would ask questions to stimulate discussion. He divided his students into teams and gave them assignments outside class. [....]

Walter Parker, a professor of education at the University of Washington, said he teaches using the “Socratic seminar” method. [....] "It is an interpretive discussion of a piece of text during which the professor says very little,” Parker said. “The professor chooses a rich piece of text and plans an interpretive question as he opens the discussion." [....]

The advantage of this kind of teaching is that students learn how to think on their feet, said Patricia King, a professor of education at the University of Michigan.

“But it requires hard intellectual work,” she said. [....]

"When done well, you simply do not impose the teacher's idea, and try to come up with a solution through dialogue," said Michael Apple, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "In general, it is a guided dialogue." [....]

But he added that not that many faculty members use it these days. "The reason for its unpopularity sometimes is because we are in a test-based education system. Students can be increasingly impatient where the answer is not clear and when the professor is not giving it to them immediately." [....] Students may also think that they are being treated as if they were not very smart. [....]

In Maranville’s case, students did not see the value of his approach, the court records suggest. "Some students were quite vocal in their demands that he change his teaching style, which style had already been observed and approved by his peer faculty and administrative superiors,” according to the lawsuit. Students did not want to work in teams and did not want Maranville to ask questions. “They wanted him to lecture.” They also complained, according to the suit, that he did not know how to teach because he is blind. [....]
It so happens that when I teach seminars, I always ask students a lot of questions, even follow-up questions. And in many cases I ask students to work in teams—specifically, to meet in discussion groups outside the regular class meetings. Should I be worried?

=> Incidentally, to avoid possible misunderstanding, I believe quite strongly that lectures can play an important and valuable role as well, so I don't view this as an either/or matter. On the contrary, I would say that in some educational circles nowadays (apparently not at Utah Valley University, but certainly at some schools where I've taught) there is an absurdly exaggerated prejudice against lecturing that has done a lot of damage.

Obviously, there are good and bad lectures, and both lectures and discussions have their place. But students who don't have extensive experience of listening to substantial lectures, and who haven't learned to follow and engage them actively and intelligently, don't have the opportunity to watch someone develop a complex argument at length and to hold such arguments in their own heads. There are frequent complaints, no doubt justified, that growing up with TV and the internet in an increasingly sound-bite culture tends to give young people short attention spans. (Older people, too.) But stigmatizing lectures in general (or replacing them with pseudo-lectures based on PowerPoint presentations) only reinforces the problem.

Yours for Bildung,
Jeff Weintraub