Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Classroom as Chaotic System

I'm not sure when I first heard the term SLO -- Student Learning Outcomes --or when the idea became institutionalized, but now, each semester, professors have to put on their syllabi the SLOs of a course.  Suggested examples are along the lines of “In this course, a student will learn the fundamentals of ...”
Although I appreciate the desire to make educational goals clear, I have reservations about SLOs.  One is the use of the verb “will” in sentences like “students will learn.”  Well, maybe, they will.  That depends on the student. 
The saying about leading a horse to water is relevant.  Registering, paying for, and attending a course is no guarantee that a person will learn its content.  Buying a book doesn’t mean you know what’s in it, and it’s possible to read and not comprehend a thing.   In college, I was so focused on how many pages I had left to complete an assignment – 90, 75, 32 – that I had no idea sometimes what I was reading.  Pride and Prejudice?  A woman and man don’t like each other, and then they do.  (Or is that Sense and Sensibility?)  Hobbe’s Leviathan?  Something about governments and how death is bad, so kings are good.
The exchange in A Fish Called Wanda struck close to home.  Kevin Kline’s character, Otto, says, “Apes don’t read philosophy,” and Jamie Lee Curtis’s Wanda retorts, “Yes, They do, Otto.  They just don’t understand it.”  She goes on to say, “Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." And the London Underground is not a political movement.
If students put in the work and if they commit to the material and if they spend the time and energy and if they have a certain intelligence, then they may learn something in a course.  Maybe.
More fundamentally, however, I'm skeptical of the basic premise which assumes a direct process of the professor teaching X and the student learning X. My own experience was much more along the lines of the professor tried to teach X but I actually learned Y or LMNOP.  What do I remember from my Literary Theory course?  That Roland Barthes died by being hit by a laundry truck.  From Modern Literature?  That John O’Hara was hit by a taxi.  And, in some class I learned that Isadora Duncan strangled when her scarf tangled in the wheel of her car. 
What was I learning?  Terrific artists die mundane deaths.  I don’t think this was the SLO of any of my courses.
As teachers, we may know what we want the outcome to be or what we think it should be, but we don't actually know what it will be.  I often have former students say things like, “I’ve never forgotten how you once said…” and it will be something I have no memory of.  Something that was probably a throw-off line or digression.  This is the butterfly effect of education.
The classroom can be a chaotic system.  We know the general direction of how the water will flow, but it sputters and splashes in unpredictable ways.  

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