Tanner lecturer discusses how to teach outside of the syllabus

Alfie Kohn, distiguished author and lecturer, spoke for the Grace Adams Tanner Lecture in Human Values Tuesday in the Hunter Conference Center.

Alfie Kohn, distiguished author and lecturer, spoke for the Grace Adams Tanner Lecture in Human Values Tuesday in the Hunter Conference Center. Photo by Arissa Moore.

Grace A. Tanner Lecturer Alfie Kohn spoke about changing syllabi, fighting against grades and questioning the usefulness of tests Tuesday.

The Grace Adams Tanner Center partnered with the Convocation Lecture Series to bring a speaker who challenged traditional ideas of teaching and education.

Kohn said he is always interested when good theory and research of any topic suggests one way to do something, but the practices are still following another.

“Whenever I see a discrepancy like that, I want to try and shake people up so they do something,” he said. “I like to get people to try and question their beliefs and do some research of their own.”

Kohn said one of the problems with educators is how they teach.

“See yourself not just as a teacher of political science or philosophy, but primarily as a teacher of students,” he said to teachers. “Focus on the learner and the learning rather than the teaching and subject matter.”

Kohn said if there is one thing that can ruin a student’s education, it is the syllabus handed out on the first day of class.

“I have seen long and highly punctual syllabi,” he said. “Syllabi often detail what should be done in a class, but often omit what should be learned, or why it is worth studying.”

Kohn said a syllabus can be demeaning to students, and does not create an environment to facilitate learning.

“When a professor creates a syllabus, what they’re saying is, ‘Your job is to do what I unilaterally tell you to do, read and write,’” he said. “With a syllabus, it doesn’t matter what you want to learn, what you already know, or what your experiences and questions are as individuals.”

Kohn said he believes no class — no matter if it is the same course and catalogue number — should ever be the same as another, because each class is full of different students.

“A professor with no syllabus show a fundamental respect for his students, not a lack of preparation on his or her part,” he said. “It shows that this class is going to be remarkably different because you’re not the same people in it.”

Kohn continued his lecture, speaking about grades and the damage he said they can do to students of all ages.

“Grades are a powerful way to drain interest and enthusiasm out of the topic or discipline,” he said. “Students who are graded are likely to pick the easiest possible task if given a choice.”

He said this is the case because obtaining good grades is what the end goal becomes.

“Students aren’t lazy,” he said. “Students are rational; of course they are going to pick the easiest or shortest task, because it reduces risk.”

Kohn said students do not want to try harder and risk getting a bad grade when they could do easier work and get a higher grade.

He said he does have a way to fix this problem, and it is to do away with grades altogether.

“Make grades as invisible as possible,” he said. “The more salient you make the grades, the more damage you do to the learning.”

Kohn then went on the offense, attacking the use of assessments and test taking.

“Tests tend not to assess the kind of intellectual capabilities and growth that most of us care about,” he said. “The majority of tests are about cramming forgettable facts into our short term memory; especially if they are those horrible fill-in-the-blank, matching items or multiple choice questions.”

Kohn not only believes tests do not help, he said his least favorite type of test is a test graded on a curve.

“Now, no matter how well all of you do, you can’t all get good grades,” he said. “If you weren’t sadistic and neurotic before, you are now because you’re wishing your classmates to fail.”


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