Feature or bug: On bad pedagogy

It’s commonly acknowledged that traditional pedagogical methods emphasizing passive listening and rote memorization are suboptimal. “We now know” that there are superior methods that focus on student engagement and discussion. What I sometimes wonder is whether people in those benighted traditional days knew this as well. After all, it’s not as though the aspects of human nature that make active learning preferable just sprang up 20 years ago, and presumably everyone involved in a community of learning stumbles into a productive discussion at some point.

And then it hit me: the badness of traditional methods is a feature, not a bug. The goal is not so much to teach people as to sort them by ability. The truly gifted students will overcome the crappy pedagogy and learn the subject anyway, whereas the laggards will be revealed as the laggards they always were. The task is not instruction, but judgment.

3 thoughts on “Feature or bug: On bad pedagogy

  1. It’s the basis for grading on a curve. So in my experience (as a student and as an (ex-) academic), it was never a secret or a mystery. To hold the belief that systems of reward and punishment are not endogenous to the business of teaching and to hold, further, that they get in the way of learning for many people, is a sure way to brand yourself as a non-serious person in most places. Punishment and compulsion look like work; learning often doesn’t look like work because when it’s really happening it is pleasure. This makes anxious cowardly half-baked status-insecure people uneasy, and they are afraid of social or (trickling and oozing in secret) employment sanctions for tolerating those sort of hedonistic goings-on.When you call their attention to this, these people suddenly start channelling Graham Chapman dressed as a major doing his “I like a good joke as well as the next man, but…”

  2. I agree that it was a matter of sorting or boxing students into categories. As long as the social system prohibits one from doing brain surgery in the morning and writing poetry in the afternoon, that’s the way things will be.

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