The Courage to Teach – Part two: Covering the Field

Parker Palmer - probably teaching the shit out of something *right now*
Parker Palmer – probably teaching the shit out of something *right now*

See Part 1 here

For the last week or so, I’ve been relegated to pacing my classroom as my co-teacher preps the students for the finals they are taking this week.  It’s a special kind of demoralizing that says, “thanks for teaching all these classes! Now I’m going to take the rest of the semester to prepare the students for the test.”  But, I suppose you get used to it eventually.  On the plus side of things, I get a lot of time to watch and evaluate another style of teaching and how students generally react to it.

One thing really stands out to me about many teachers approaches to teaching, is the extremely diligent adherence to what we call, “covering the field.”  The expression is a little vague (intentionally, I believe). It becomes even more difficult to nail down when you design your own final exams and it isn’t clear there is a district, or state, or national standard that you are aiming for (except for, I guess, the fact that many schools use the same textbook?).  I may be wrong about the standards point, but I have actually asked to be shown such a set of goals and curriculum and as of yet, its existence has been denied.

So, in the case of my classroom, “covering the field” entails going over everything in the book.  Of course, much of what is in the book is helpful, but much of it is superfluous to an understanding of practical English, as it is used; and almost none of it is an attempt to give the students the tools for communication or for discovering linguistic phenomenon on their own.  What the book does do, is provide specific linguistic ideas (not based in actual usage) and present theoretical examples (at times grammatically-strained to begin with).  It is a safe bet that covering the book (equated with the “field”, I suppose… sadly) will ensure enough information that can then be tested on.

And I understand that the drive to “cover the field” comes from a place of integrity and ethics.  As teachers of a specific field, we have a responsibility to teach our subject fully.  We feel responsible, in some fashion, for the future success of a field we (hopefully) deeply respect and love.  As Palmer says:

“I often hear an inner voice of dissent: ‘But my field is full of factual information that students must possess before they can continue in the field’. … Like many other teachers I know, I fill the space because I have a professional ethic, one that holds me responsible both for my subject’s integrity and for my students’ need to be prepared for further education or the job market.  To quote many faculty who feel driven by it, it is an ethic that requires us to ‘cover the field’” (pg 123).

The problem with this “covering the field” approach is too well known to most of us.  Palmer continues:

“When facts about the subject are dumped en masse, students are overwhelmed, and their grasp of the facts is fleeting.  Knowing this, we might revisit the metaphor of covering the field, which unconsciously portrays teaching as the act of drawing a tarp over a field of grass until no one can see what is under it and the grass dies and nothing new can grow.  That is not a bad description of what happens to students in fact-laden courses: they fail to understand the subject, retaining the information just long enough to pass the test, and they never want to pick up a book on that subject again” (pg 124; bolds added).

Sound familiar?  This is essentially my relationship to the very fascinating subject of biology.  This is my relationship to Math as well.  I’m sure we’ve all got our subjects that we crammed for and then forgot everything about.  And for some reason, these types of classes have achieved a sort of badge of honor for teaching in this fashion.  Students become warriors for having trudged through the battlefields and foxholes of endless anatomy word-tests, barrages of biology and sieges of physics.  Leading to the most bizarre of phenomenon, that of the “weeder” class.  The purpose of which is to intentionally rid the subject of those who are not sufficiently motivated from the beginning, while at the same time giving those who do have the requisite motivation the arbitrary sense of self-satisfaction and brotherhood for having survived.

I’ll just insert a wildly unfounded and personal opinion, but it seems to me that the purpose of the Weeder Success“weeder” class is a holier-than-thou practice of the academic establishment that is simply unwilling (perhaps lacking motivation?) to approach their subject in a way that avoids the problems of a cover-the-field approach (additional info here).  People will speak of resources and the practicality of having too many students, etc.. valid concerns and I’m not going to propose solutions, just perhaps raise the thought that “weeder” classes don’t actually provide the benefit we think they do unless! The only benefit is to get rid of students.  In which case, I question the ethics of an educator who practices their trade that way.

I am, afterall, in a comfortable position to question and undermine the practices of what are generally University courses and education practices.  One can legitimately wonder what such practices have to do with a public secondary education, considering all their differences.  The actual critique is more fundamental to what it means to teach and consequently, what it means to learn.

With that in mind, the main concerns about ‘covering the field’ approaches, for educators and students alike are concisely listed below.

1)      Covering the field leads to a failure to understand on the part of the learner.
2)      Covering the field masks the methods and tools needed to be a practioner of the subject.
3)      Covering the field demotivates students.

In the next post, we’ll consider the above concerns by following Parker Palmer’s Holographic teaching metaphor and speak more specifically to the ESL context in application.


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