Wandering about the internet this morning prior to doing some actual work, I happened upon a blog post by Seth Goodin about teaching, and how students should demand better instruction. Historically, I've generally agreed with and enjoyed Seth's blog (though lamenting being unable to comment there directly), but in this case, I think he's missing the point.
I can certainly appreciate the plight of college students everywhere, spending tens of thousands of dollars to go to school. I did the same thing for my college years, and even continued for another 5 1/2 years to go to grad school. Almost three years out of it, and I've still got loans, and probably will for a few years to come (9 1/2 years of postsecondary education isn't cheap in the states). However, I had the pleasure of being taught by amazing professors at both institutions that I attended, but even more importantly, attended school with interested and engaged students (I wasn't the only one doing homework on Friday nights). Sadly, this isn't always the case...
Everyone agrees that if you have a poor teacher/professor, your learning (and grades) will suffer... but there's a limit to which that is the instructor's fault. So often when I was both studying and teaching, I would hear complaints (and offered a few myself) about a poor instructor. Either they didn't care, didn't understand where their teaching fell on deaf ears, taught something unrelated to the course, ... However, when confronted with this type of instructor, a student is given an opportunity to engage themselves in learning. Classes come with books, and instructors are meant to help the student understand and integrate the knowledge and wisdom within those books. But prior to the internet, Wikipedia, or Khan Academy, students have managed to learn, despite poor instructors. How? They read and studied the books, consulting their fellow and elder students when they had questions. I know I was different in this regard, as when I found difficulty understanding my teacher during Trigonometry in high school, I read the book, studied, and understood it. When asked by other students how I managed to do well despite a confusing teacher, I pointed at the book. Only a few of them had taken the time to read the book beyond the problems, or when they did, would take the time to understand it.
Back when I was a TA in grad school, I made many mistakes (mostly in my first couple quarters). But by the final quarter of my teaching stint, I was doing 3 back-to-back sections for the same course, an hour each. The students who showed up and let even just a little bit of my enthusiasm rub off on them were engaged (if you are not excited about what you are teaching, students won't care, and students won't come). But what happened was that 5-10% of students never showed up for any of the discussion sections (except for reviews prior to exams). They would sometimes go to class (sometimes watching television or DVDs in the back rows), read their classmate's notes, hand in half-copied, half-bullshit homework, and expect to learn enough in one hour to be sufficient for an Algorithms/Data Structures midterm/final. Sometimes they managed to cram enough, but usually we would be overly generous and give them a D-.
I can appreciate what Seth is trying to say: expect more from your teachers/professors/instructors. But an amazing instructor can only go so far. Students must also be engaged and willing to participate in the process of learning, otherwise they are at least as much to blame for wasting their time and money as a poor instructor.
If you want to see more posts like this, you can buy my book, Redis in Action from Manning Publications today!