What I Learned About Knowledge From Dropping Out of Grad School

After moving to Ohio I found myself without a full-time job. I even had a little difficulty getting substituting positions just because the system was so different from that in Minnesota, and I didn’t find the area schools very helpful, with the exception of the secretaries at Upper Sandusky High School. On a complete side note, ODE was not helpful at all with getting my license transferred. That’s not really important, but it does give me another reason to complain about ODE.

I decided that since I was just substitute teaching I would trying applying to a graduate school program. I ended up choosing the History program at BGSU because of it’s location and the timing of the classes. My first couple of times in a graduate seminar I was a little lost. It didn’t represent anything like I was used to. I could best describe the setting as almost like being in a book club. We had assigned reading, and then we discussed the reading.

Admittedly, I was lost, and also a little star-struck, since my first professor I had instantly recognized from History Detectives.

I had read the book, but the discussion didn’t have the recall questions I was used to answering. I kept waiting for the professor to ask questions that would allow me to demonstrate that I had read the book, that I could show my classmates my superior intellect. But it never happened. He only kept asking these, “Why did the author use this,” or “What did you think about this,” kind of questions. The only time I had ever answered opinion questions throughout my educational experience, it was always a, “Yes, I liked it,” type of question. I asked for advice from some of my classmates and was informed that as long as I speak up a couple of times during class it would be fine. That really didn’t help since I didn’t know how to voice a comment during class without the fear of sounding stupid.

Part of the class involved reading a book individually and then presenting it to the class. I had chosen this book about the Dust Bowl. As I began rambling through my summary of the book I felt all those typical feelings of anxiety that comes when having to present in front of an authority figure. I first noticed the ubiquitous amounts of head nods as my report of the book was heavy on the summary, but light on analysis. I then mentioned something about the failure of the Russians to adapt corn to their climate, and an ensuing drought there, but I worded it as a question. When I looked at my professor he hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. This made me feel uneasy, so I kind of stumbled through the conclusion of my presentation and mentioned the American ethos.

Then the questions began.

I don’t remember any of the specific questions, but I do remember feeling caught off guard, especially the questions from the professor. There are two types of teacher questions. The first type is the one almost everyone is familiar with, the checking for comprehension question, the rhetorical question. Teachers already know the answer to these questions, we are only asking students to see if they know the answer as well. The second type of question is what I call a legitimate question. A legitimate question acknowledges the limitations of the questioner, and transfers authority and power to those being asked, and that’s what made it so scary for me.

It seems to me that most students seek affirmation of their correctness from the teacher, without much thought as to why something is correct. I see this all the time students volunteer an answer to a question and want to know if it is correct, but cannot explain how they came to their conclusion. Many times they will answer questions with an upward inflection in their voice, as if their answer is a question itself. Usually to save time, teachers, including myself, will either confirm or deny the educated guess from the students. This is a problem because the students’ concept of knowledge and truth is based upon affirmation of the authority figure.

Which is why my professor threw me for a loop when he asked me a legitimate question about the American ethos. He wanted to know more about the American ethos that the author was discussing, but he wasn’t testing me to make sure I read the book, he really wanted to know and was dependent upon me to provide him with information. Suddenly, I was an authority figure over my professor controlling his access to Worster’s paradigm of American ethos. My struggle happened because I had never developed the executive function necessary to regulate my own concept of knowledge. My definition of knowledge was like so many of my students’, dependent upon the affirmation of the teacher.

As the year progressed in the graduate course, I became more comfortable and started to understand how authoritative knowledge is formed. It started to impact my concept of mathematics and my concept of teaching. I have written about my struggles in school, whether it be in the classroom or as a teacher, but this post is ultimately about how a History class changed how I think about knowledge and power.

I started successfully adapting to History class when I started justifying my statements in class. If I was going to offer a comment I made sure I had a passage from the book or some other source ready to provide evidence. That way, no matter how my professor or classmates might respond I could reply with the proof of my statement. When I started to reflect upon the math I was teaching I became appalled at how much of my mathematical knowledge rested not on proof of knowledge, but how much had simply been affirmed by authority figures. I had just memorized many correct answers and procedures. I knew I was right because I was told I was right, and it showed in my teaching.

My teaching during the first four years of my career could be summed up as regurgitation. In more uncouth terms, it was like I was telling my students, “Here is the shit I had to learn in school, now it’s your turn.” Okay, maybe I hid behind some platitudes about critical thinking, or 21st century skills, but my whole concept of school had nothing to do with knowledge.

That’s how dropping out of grad school educated me. (I couldn’t handle the work load of full-time work, becoming a parent, and watching other areas of my life go to crap.) It enlightened me to the idea that knowledge and truth is not something that is owned by teachers. They try to make sense of the world and then share their understanding with us, but they do not  create and control knowledge. Yes, teachers are usually more of an expert in their fields than their students, but they control truth. Real power comes from being able to make sense of the knowledge around you independent of any other people. It made me feel like so much of my formal education was a waste.

School as we know it, isn’t set up to achieve knowledge. Authentic learning comes in fits and spurts, and is not easily confined to weekly assessments and standardized testing. Grades and test scores do not necessarily accompany knowledge. One of the proudest moments I have ever felt as a teacher was when a student remarked that he achieved a 96 on an economics test at the local community college. (I had taught economics to him in high school, a class I didn’t feel qualified to teach.) The grade wasn’t what made me proud, but what he said next, “I know it is a good grade, but I don’t feel like I really know anything. I would rather have an 80, but actual know something.” After years of classes with me it was finally clicking for him. Grades can make us delusional to our own abilities.

I was delusional. I graduated with honors from both high school and college, but struggled to explain Algebra I concepts. I essentially was exactly the same person that I was in junior high. I had never learned or mastered any academic subject. The only thing I had ever mastered was how to put down the right answers on tests to appease my teachers. And I didn’t realize this until I was 26.

Are high school students capable of mastering knowledge? I believe the answer is yes, but it is a near impossibility under the lock step current system we have. The only time I feel like I have had success convincing students the merits of mastery, rather than the merits of grades, have been in small homogeneous classes, or in regular after school sessions. Mastery of knowledge will lead to confidence.

Grade motivated students will eventually be exposed, one way or another. When smart students become motivated by grades they become complacent. Complacent students become stressed when pressed about their knowledge. Complacency breeds the anxiety that will eventually breed perpetual underachievement.

We preach creativity and mastery, but our actions tell students that all we really want from them is the right answers. We are so wrong.

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