To Ban or Not to Ban?

It was interesting to me that the article “On Banning Things in Classrooms” by Jon Warner was part of the reading materials for this week on Digital Pedagogy. Although I think that this discussion is more related to traditional pedagogical methods and how teachers who employ such methods should (or shouldn’t) adapt to changing technologies, I was happy to read Warner’s article and engage with his arguments. I intend to engage with 2 of Warner’s main arguments in this critique.

Warner’s first argument is related to the main point of the article – should teachers ban electronics in their classrooms? At first, Warner treads carefully and engages with another published article, this one an op-ed piece published in the New York Times and authored by Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, who supports banning electronics in the classroom. Warner briefly mentions some of the studies that Professor Dynarski cites and dismisses them, offering a limitation based on his own reading and then citing Twitter threads from another Professor who suggests multiple limitations of the original studies. After taking a sharp turn into a completely different topic – grades (the 2nd point I’ll be engaging with below) – Warner offers his counter opinions:

“I am uncomfortable with ‘bans’ because my philosophy and values bend towards a privileging of student agency and responsibility. They have the right to make bad choices which may result in poor grades or a diminished intellectual experience.”

 “To me, banning anything in class will always be a blunt instrument, and unnecessary when I can require students to chose their instruments for themselves.”

Obviously, Warner is against banning electronics in the classroom, and there is some truth behind his reasoning that needs to be acknowledged. Encouraging and enabling students to take ownership of their own learning is important and I would argue that students who expect professors to spoon-feed them all pertinent information are ultimately not going to be as successful as students who learn beyond the classroom. However, Warner makes a point at the beginning of the article that deserved more attention. He states:

“When we are talking about ‘banning’ something, it’s worth asking why, and to what end.”

I agree with Warner entirely on this point, and I think the discussion around banning electronics often jumps over this point. Is it reasonable to assume that teachers who ban the use of laptops and other electronics forgot to think through the reasons why they enacted the ban? I would argue no, it isn’t a reasonable assumption. Professors are intelligent, rational thinkers who earned their place in academia and the teaching authority that comes with it. If professors think that the students will learn most effectively using pen and paper only, then their opinion must be respected. Their opinions should be respected in the same way that our pedagogy professors’ opinions and conclusions should be respected. Professors ought to have the authority to dictate the policies that the students will follow in their classroom.

If I were arguing against myself on this point, I’d say that “Most professors are too focused on research and don’t care as much about teaching.” This point can also be true, but I would say that there are other problems that primarily contribute to this issue. One example would be the incentive structures for professors – they are incentivized to be highly productive with their research and there are serious consequences for their career if they are not productive. Oppositely, there is less of an emphasis on teaching incentives and there are not as serious consequences for bad teaching reviews (as long as there is research productivity). A change in the incentive structure would help to fix some of these issues.

And as quickly as Warner shifted to the subject of grades in his article, so I am shifting topics as well.  Warner makes the following bold statement:

“… if we are interested in banning something in the service of student learning, before we worry about laptops, we should instead address the far more harmful effects of a nearly ubiquitous classroom practice. Grades.”

Warner mentions that there is evidence behind the apparent disconnect between grades and learning, suggesting that professors can be too focused on grades and achievement, to the detriment of student learning. I’d have to go through and look at the evidence for myself, but it is apparent that there is only one side of the argument being presented (otherwise there would be a scientific consensus and I’d be checking boxes on my transcript for completed coursework rather than calculating my GPA every semester). Professors and students both ought to recognize that good grades are not the end goal. Once you make it out in the real world and start working, a 4.0 GPA means absolutely nothing if you haven’t learned enough to do your job effectively. The opportunity for a student to earn a grade is really just an opportunity for them to demonstrate the level of knowledge that they have on a particular subject. Therefore, grades offer a couple of main benefits: 1) they give students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge against an objective grading standard (set by the professor) and a relative grading standard based on how their classmates do in comparison; 2) they automatically create a hierarchy of students where the best students rise to the top of the hierarchy and can be hired by employers. Someone on the opposing side of this argument might say “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the students with the best grades actually learned the material better than the other students.” There are some instances in which this might be true, in which case it is the fault of the professor for not crafting an effective examination. Also, if this were true on average, then we would see a change in company hiring practices – the top students wouldn’t always get hired first.

Examinations are good; they are objective. They allow persons from every walk of life, regardless of socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, etc., to sit and demonstrate the knowledge that they have compared to everyone else. Obviously, there are exceptions to be made for disabilities – that is a topic for another conversation. The point here is that there is an underlying principle of equality – that is, equality of opportunity. Our culture is currently more concerned with equality of outcome than they are with equality of opportunity, so it isn’t surprising that we see testing being discarded at every level. We see it in college admissions, where standardized testing is more or less obsolete. We see it in the college classroom environments using the same argumentation that learning is the goal, not grades. However, if this logic reaches its full conclusion and testing is entirely removed from institutions, is this a good thing for students? Some students may learn better without grades and be better off for it; but how are they to show a hiring manager that they are a better candidate than their classmate who coasted through school without grades and didn’t learn much at all?

These types of issues really show up when you use examples that have important – life or death – consequences. Tomorrow when you go for a drive in your car and you cross a bridge, does it matter if the engineer who designed that bridge did great, average, or below average on the licensure exam? Tonight when your water heater kicks on, does it matter if the plumber who hooked up the gas connection did well, average, or squeaked by on the certification exam? Hopefully this never happens to you, but if for some reason you require a complicated surgical operation, does it matter if the surgeon is an exceptional, good, or just okay medical student? Grades not only level the playing field for students, they have tangible benefits for society as well.

 

References:

Dynarski, S. (2017) “Laptops are Great. But Not During a Lecture or Meeting.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/business/laptops-not-during-lecture-or-meeting.html

Warner, J. (2017) “On Banning Things in the Classroom.” Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/banning-things-classrooms.

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