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Flexibility: Where to Bend and How Much?

COVID-19 For Those Who Teach

Flexibility: Where to Bend and How Much?

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My recent column on teaching in troubling times mentions the need for flexibility, and one of my dear colleagues noted that the idea of flexibility needed to be fleshed out. I agree, with one of my first thoughts being I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that explores how flexibility works in teaching situations. If you have, please share the reference in a comment.

Teaching Professor Blog

In the natural world flexibility is tested in times of extremity. I live in the woods at the top end of a hollow that faces west. During storms the wind barrels through here, making the trees bend and branches twist and turn. Sometimes branches are ripped off, and occasionally a tree goes down, but most stay standing, ready to weather the next storm.

I’d say we’re teaching in a storm right now—so we need to bend. But where do we bend and how much? Even though times are tough for everyone, it’s hard for teachers not to feel caught in a bit of a bind. We do have standards to uphold, and students have been known to take advantage of teachers. We want to be flexible, but we also want the requests to make course changes and the asks for special accommodations to be legitimate. When we bend, we want to do so without damaging our ethical obligations as teachers.

Analyzing the situation starts simply enough. We can be flexible in two areas, the first being course-related issues. If something isn’t working—whether the pace of the course, the online discussions, the access to resources, or the technology—it’s pretty easy to ascertain whether that’s a widespread problem. If so, then we can adjust with the goal of fixing the problem or at least making it better. It’s more challenging to be flexible when standards are involved—say, to make an assignment easier or less complicated, cut the length, or extend the deadline. What circumstances justify those kinds of modifications?

Could we all agree? We’ve got to bend in the direction of learning. Instructional policies and practices must always and only be about learning. But the learning potential in a course is broad and doesn’t always involve content. What if we opt not to discuss a set of assigned readings and instead ask whether the young have a responsibility to take actions that protect the old? Is that a bend in the direction of learning? Beyond course-level flexibility are those requests from individual students—for more time, for the chance to redo an assignment or make up a quiz, for extra credit, for counting effort—and those are much harder to sort out and through, especially in times of extremity. Does it make sense to take some time to think about the request before offering a response? Often the student request comes laden with emotion, which makes it easy to let emotion clutter the response. Am I saying yes because I want the student to think I’m a good person? Do I want to say yes because it’s easier than saying no?

Beyond the most important consideration—what the request will do for the student’s learning—there are fairness and equity issues. Course requirements should apply to all students equally, but does that mean all students must do the same things? Content can be learned in different ways, but different has a long history of not being equal. In this case, that’s less because of bias than on account of the imprecision of grading measures. These issues are larger than any individual request, but they bubble up whenever a student asks us to be flexible about a requirement. Then again, bending in the direction of a student can make it easier to see how learning looks from that novice learner perspective.

If ever there was a time to be flexible, this is it. Our courses were interrupted and, in most cases, significantly altered midstream. We need to adjust and maybe in directions that make us stretch. It’s a time of great anxiety, high stress, and fear for all of us. If ever we needed to be there for each other, that time is now. Teachers need students to be understanding, and students need teachers to be flexible for all sorts of good reasons. So we reach out. The wind blows, the tree bends and then straightens, rooted to the idea of holding on and standing tall.

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