TITLE: Narrow Caution and Noble Issue AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 26, 2011 12:08 PM DESC: ----- BODY: A cautionary note from John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice:
We are to take care how we check, by severe requirement or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to a noble issue; and, still more, how we withhold our admiration from great excellencies, because they are mingled with rough faults.
Ruskin was a permission giver. I found this passage in The Seduction, an essay by Paula Marantz Cohen. Earlier in the piece, she related that many of her students were "delighted" by Ruskin's idea that "the best things shall be seldomest seen in their best form". The students...
... felt they were expected to be perfect in whatever it was they undertook seriously (which might be why they resisted undertaking much seriously).
In the agile software development world, we recognize that fear even short of perfectionism can paralyze developers, and we take steps to overcome the danger (small steps, tests first, pair programming). We teachers need to remember that our high school and college students feel the same way -- and that their feelings are often made even more formidable by the severe requirement and narrow caution by which we check their efforts. Marantz closes her essay by anticipating that other professors might not like her new approach to teaching, because it "dumbs things down" with shorter reading assignments, shorter writing assignments, and classroom discussion that allows personal feelings. It seems to me, though, that getting students to connect with literature, philosophy, and ideas bigger than themselves is an important win. One advantage of shorter writing assignments was that she was able to give feedback more frequently and thus focused more directly on specific issues of structure and style. This is a positive trade-off. In the end she noted that, despite working from a much squishier syllabus and with a changing reading list, students did not complain about grades. Her conclusion:
I suspect that students focus on grades when they believe that this is all they can get out of a course. When they feel they have learned something, the grade becomes less important.
I have felt this, both as student and as teacher. When most of the students in one of my classes are absorbed in their grade, it usually means that I am doing something wrong with the class. Go forth this week and show admiration for the great excellencies in your students, your children, and your colleagues, not only despite the excellencies being mingled with rough faults, but because they are so. -----