Rethinking Policies That Stifle
“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.” That line from an e e cummings poem has been following me around all week.
So much of our educational system is wrapped in how-not-to’s. How not to miss class or arrive late, how not to wait until the last minute to do an assignment, and how not to plagiarize or cheat. There’s a lot of things students shouldn’t do if they want to do well in college and succeed in life, and teachers rightfully explain these expectations to students.
However, it’s the negative frame that puts the damper on learning and makes the journey through school feel more like a death march than a dance. Switching the frame changes the perspective. Rather than penalties and prohibitions, there can be acknowledgements and rewards for doing it right. I borrowed an attendance policy from a colleague that I advertised as the “No Attendance Policy,” which meant no teacher-imposed penalties for missing class. “Less learning!” the syllabus pointed out, but no penalties. “There is a reward for good attendance. On 10 unannounced days I will take roll and those present earn two bonus points. Get all 20 points, and you’ve earned another five points plus high-fives for acting on the recognition that being in class makes the learning easier.”
Recently someone asked me, “What policies promote learning?” I love questions I haven’t considered previously. My first thought was how many of our policies are strongly prohibitive. They spell out in directive, authoritarian language penalties for missed deadlines, not participating, failing to format properly, and plagiarizing. I looked through my large collection of syllabi, searching for policies that more positively prevented what compromises learning. I found a couple.
- “Collaboration is the preferred form of learning in this class. Learning should go in all directions; from me to you, from you to others, from others to you, and from you to me. Learning should be happening in every corner of our classroom.”
- “Second chance policy: I believe in second chances. Any written assignment in this course can be re-done. You do it once, turn it in, and get your grade. You think you can do it better, re-do it. Let me know your plans and set the due date for your re-do, meet it and start out with five extra points. This policy doesn’t end until the course does.”
I remember someone telling me about an Effort Counts Policy that went something like this. “Effort does count in this class. Here are the behaviors I take as evidence that a student is trying hard: 1) regular, on time attendance; 2) attentive, focused listening to what the teacher and fellow classmates say; 3) participation in class and/or online via the course discussion board; and 4) showing up during office hours or sending a note/text when you need help, have a question, find the content interesting, or just to chat about what you’re learning.
Like the lines in any great poem, there’s lots of meaning packed in this one. The stars do dance; they twinkle and move across the night sky. Who would imagine teaching them not to dance? As teachers we need to be sure that what we are teaching students does not rob them of their identity or turn them into something they aren’t. Yes, there are procedures and right ways of doing most things and that’s part of what students are in school to learn. But education should be more about cultivating creativity than conformity. Look at e e cummings—he knew all the rules for poetry and proceeded to break most of them. Students do need to learn to do things correctly. But we also need to leave a small space that allows for and values individual expression.