I usually don't get that riled up by magazine articles, but after reading "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" I was fuming. I bought The Atlantic to read on the plane ride home... and boy did I regret it. Why am I so mad? I have spent most of my professional life in adult education and instructional design. The article I read is about a professor (who teaches English 101 and 102 Adult Ed evening classes) who routinely fails 9/15 of his students and fails many repeatedly. He blames, get this, the STUDENTS! Seriously?! 'm sorry... but if someone takes your course 2 or 3 times and cannot pass it... there is something VERY wrong with your teaching -- not with the STUDENT! This is a GROSS failure of teaching and this man should be fired ON THE SPOT or at least sent to some remedial courses on instructional design.
Ok, here are some of the things that really upset me (other than the fact that he seems completely unaware that his lack of teaching contributes to the problem at all):
- He genuinely is surprised that his students have not read To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm. Really?! Come on! You are teaching people who, by your own admission, are studying to be cops and medical transcriptionists. Do you REALLY think they had the kind of educational opportunities where they were exposed to these books?!
- He has the students reading Araby by Joyce. You're kidding, right? You are expecting someone with little or no background in literature to start by reading Joyce? Why not pick a piece of literature that is more approachable and closer to their reading level? Why not start with The Most Dangerous Game or The Lottery? I'm not saying don't expose them to great literature -- just pick something engaging and accessible.
- He has the students write a research paper as their first assignment. If your students have trouble writing coherent paragraphs why are you starting with papers? Why not have them start with learning how to write a grammatical sentence. (Play Mad Libs to learn the parts of speech) Then teach them how to write a good paragraph. Then teach your students to outline. Then have them write a 5 paragraph essay. THEN move to a "college" paper. Once they have the fundamentals of writing they can write anything but you will never create good writers our of them if you do not teach the fundamentals.
- The research paper is supposed to be on the two sides of a historical controversy. He is genuinely surprised that his students don't understand the assignment and can't come up with a topic. When your students don't understand the assignment it is a red flag: it either means you have not clearly explained what is expected or the assignment is beyond the current abilities of your students.
What Professor X is doing is as is as crazy as taking someone who has only splashed in a bathtub and throwing them into the ocean during a storm to improve their swimming skills. The only outcome he can expect is drowning.
When you create courses for adults you need to understand:
1) Their starting point. What do they know? What can they do?
2) Your end goal. What should they be able to DO when they finish the course?
Now you should figure out what is needed to get from 1 to 2. Break it into chunks. Figure out how to teach each chunk and the logical order in which these chunks fit together. Put this on a reasonable timeline. Now try teaching it. If you still have a high failure rate see where the gaps are in the student's understanding and try to address them. Keep repeating this process until you are a fantastic teacher that students adore because they can see that you care about learning outcomes.
The goal of adult education is, not to put too fine a point on it, to educate. If you are not educating your students (and, judging by the fact that students fail your course repeatedly, you are not) you are wasting their hard-earned time and money. You, sir, are a disgrace to adult education.
I'm getting off my high horse and going to do laundry now...