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Getting The Right Answer

(I wrote this for a blog several blog generations ago, in October 2006. Just stumbled on it again. Given that tomorrow is Day One of a new semester, it seemed particularly timely. So here it is, recycled. 🙂 )

In 1965, Tom Lehrer released an album called That Was The Year That Was. Mr. Lehrer, one of my heroes, is a brilliant man – a Harvard mathematician – and a comic musical genius. This is a live album and each song has a witty introduction. In his intro to the amazing patter song New Math, Mr. Lehrer concludes that in the new way of doing things, “the important thing is to understand what you’re doing rather than to get the right answer.”

I must admit that in my current role as an instructor at a community college, I’m feeling a bit like Mr. Lehrer. It seems that getting the right answer is no longer important. Let me put it in “ed biz” lingo … we – as a college system collectively – have become more concerned about the process of education than in the outcome of that education.

I have rather more sympathy for this position than one might suspect, me with my hard-ass MBA ‘n’ all. There are students who have overcome profound obstacles just to be sitting in that classroom. In some cases, these may include civil wars and other horrible conflicts, famine, being severed by distance from one’s family, and who knows what else. There are students with learning disabilities, physical challenges, and children who require their attention, too. There are students who, for whatever reason, simply have never learned how to learn, or who do not realize that the ability to learn is, itself, a skill. If you layer on top of this that most of my students do not speak English as a first (or second, or third …) language, then the challenges become quite enormous.

Learning is hard. I have heard the process of learning being related to change, and this makes a great deal of sense to me. Change requires that a person get out of their “comfort zone” and take risks, try new things, operate in a manner in which they have zero confidence. Anytime one is taken from their comfort zone, resistance is a natural thing. From time to time, failure will occur. Learning is like that. To learn a new concept or acquire a new skill, you have to leave behind the safe space of what you already “know” and try on a new idea. It may not fit or even make sense for a while until you wear it around. Or, in the case of a skill, until you practice it quite a lot. At the beginning, you’ll get it wrong far more often than you will get it right and then, as you practice, this should change. You need to question, to probe, to experiment until a new comfort zone that includes the new idea or new skill is reached. Then, along comes a new challenge, a new thing to be learned, and you get yanked out of your comfort zone again.

Every day that I am in the classroom, I am asking people who are already deeply uncomfortable operating in a foreign language to step even further out of their comfort zones.

So I guess my question is this: as an institution, should we be paying more attention to relieving the deep discomfort we cause people, or should we still be focused on “getting the right answer”?

Let me give an example of what I am talking about. I have 16 students in one of my graduate classes. Of the 16, 15 students are not native English speakers. Of those 15, I’d say 10 have real difficulty with the language, to the point of struggling with the clearly written instructions I give them for their assignments. Last week, this class gave their major presentations, in teams of four. Each team got up and made a presentation based on cases I had assigned to them weeks earlier. (I offered to review their powerpoint materials ahead of time, in the days leading up to the presentation, but no one took me up on this.)

After the presentations were over, I told them the same thing I’ve told many classes recently who nervously get up to present their work. I cannot imagine going to a country where my own language is not spoken, and getting up and making a detailed business presentation in some other language. Even in French, a language I have merely passing familiarity with at this point, I would not be brave enough. So I make a point of complimenting them on their courage – and I mean it. They have also worked hard to try to adopt their analysis of the case to a particular presentation format. Many have worked hard just to understand the nuts and bolts of the case. I picture them with two books in front of them at 2:00 a.m. – the textbook with the cases, and an English- dictionary.

They appreciated my words of support and acknowledgement of the level of difficulty for what they just did. And I meant the words. Several students told me what a great thing it was to have an opportunity to practice making a presentation in a “safe” environment. It was a warm and fuzzy moment.

But … did they get the right answers?

I’m not finished marking these, based on my notes, their powerpoints, and their two page summary essays. Some of the content elements and analyses were way off the mark. Every single powerpoint, almost down to every single powerpoint slide within each presentation, had really terrible, in some cases completely incoherent, English usage. Granted, we have six and a half more months with this group, but I doubt we are going to see a dramatic turn-around in English skills in that time period.

My argument is not with these students, it is with an administrative process that would allow students to arrive in my class ill-equipped with the basic language tools they require in order to succeed. I cannot teach English AND business/technology simultaneously. No one would be well-served by this. Similarly, our institutions – by which I mean both universities and colleges – seem willing to turn a blind eye to faculty concerns about “getting the right answer” and seem quite willing to focus on relieving student discomfort. A discomfort, I might add, that the administrative processes have largely created. It would be frowned upon for me to give failing grades to the students who are unable to formulate a coherent English sentence to describe a business problem and yet “defining a business problem” is one of the key outcomes of our program. How can I even evaluate this if a student cannot make themselves clearly understood?

We have one student in particular who is giving us all fits. This person is clearly intelligent, mature, disciplined, well-read, and able to learn. This person has very good social skills and is well-liked by their class-mates. While this student may have some language challenges, this person is also completely unfamiliar with using a computer. Completely and utterly. There also seem to be some cultural issues around education with this person. When we teach a tech section, it goes something like this: Open this data file which you will find here. (wait for all the students to open the file) Open your textbooks to page xx. (wait) Let’s go through this exercise, steps 1-14, together to modify this data file. Please stop me if you have any questions. Of course, each step brings a new interaction with the program or the file and there is much stopping and starting, coaching, and asking of questions. Some students work ahead, some follow on exactly with what the teacher is doing. However, our friend the struggling student does not find or open the file when instructed to do so. In fact, there is some question as to whether this person understands that this is what they are supposed to do. Instead, this student simply watches and then asks for one-on-one help after class. For hours at a time. This student has been shown, in class, by the instructors and by fellow students, where to find the data files and how to open them, but still this student has a sense that they are attending a lecture rather than needing to follow along and DO skill practice/acquisition with the entire group. I can’t describe to you how much time and effort all the instructors have invested here, gently prodding, supporting, and coaching and staying after class and coming in early to class. Still, this student will arrive at the next class once again at square one.

Here is my particular bone to pick: with this student, we are WAY far away from getting the right answer. We are in the zone of “do you understand when you are being instructed to do something”? Can you imagine graduating someone from this GRADUATE program who cannot discern when a future employer is asking something of them, or giving them a particular instruction? This person will not last a day at any internship or employment situation that I can picture. Not because of their lack of computer skills, but because of their inability to take direction. Not from obstinence, but from a combination of language and mis-placed cultural norms.

These students require more of me, of us, than our sympathy. They will not succeed in whatever they have chosen to study simply because we were nice to them. They are in front of us because they want the tools they will need to move forward, to move on, with their lives. When a person is studying topics related to business, it really is important that you get the right answer, not just that you felt good while you were learning it.

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