Friday, September 7, 2012

Something no educator should ever say

A few weeks ago I ran into one of my favorite professors from my undergraduate years.  He was (and still is) engaging, fun, concerned about students, and a great teacher.  The two classes I took from him were two of my favorites.  But, I have a bone to pick with him.

It has to do with something he said to me at the point in our conversation when we were discussing the newly re-designed Physical Education Teacher Education program at BYU (the program from which I graduated). Commenting on the utility of the teacher education coursework included in the program he remarked "you've either got it or you don't and we're not going to make much of a difference."  That was a surprising (and rather ironic) thing for a former faculty member and department chair to say and it unsettled me.  And, it isn't the first time I've heard this kind of thing from an educator (for the most recent example, see this interview with a faculty member from the media arts department at BYU where, in reference to the skill of film editing, he states "students either have it or not").

How many of us secretly harbor these kinds of thoughts, whether it is about students' ability to learn to write, learn to conduct research, learn to communicate skillfully in formal presentations, or anything else we might claim to be "teaching?"  And, in what ways might these often hidden assumptions influence the way we go about teaching or mentoring students?

Clearly, learners come to us with a variety of abilities and aptitudes and will achieve "success" in varying degrees due, in large part, to the skills and knowledge they bring with them.  However, to believe that someone "either has it or they don't" is an implicit acknowledgement that either (a) we are poor educators and not competent enough to facilitate learning for learners across the spectrum of ability or (b) that, regardless of our skill as educators, it ultimately makes no meaningful difference in the lives of our students.  I'm not comfortable with either of those conditions.

At a bare minimum, those who hold the view I've critiqued here should do a better job of identifying those students who "don't have it" and advising them out of programs like film and teacher education early on so they can find that field where they "do have it."  Additionally, Carol Dweck's book Mindset, should be required reading for all educators so that we can extinguish the false notions of talent and ability that get in the way of good teaching and learning.  If what we do doesn't make a difference, then what are we wasting our time for?

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