February 22nd, 2008

Baseball Caps and Learning


I’ve always maintained that teachers have a right to bottom lines. If you can’t teach when students are eating or if you think that eating prevents others from learning, prohibit the eating. But now I’m wondering.

I’m reading a book on teaching. It’s written by a distinguished teacher. It describes how he teaches and why. There’s an advice-giving sense about the book, but it’s not as blatant as in many other books of this genre.

This professor prohibits students from wearing baseball caps in class. He doesn’t like it when the bill faces forward because students pull them down on their foreheads, slouch in their chairs, and he can’t see if they’re sleeping or if they appear to understand or be confused about the complex subjects of his lectures. Standing in front of a class and seeing a bunch of students hidden beneath hats makes it difficult for him to do his best. He is less clear about his objection to baseball caps worn with the bill backwards. To him the message conveyed is that the student is dull.

Students have objected—they pay, and doesn’t that entitle them to dress as they please and listen as they please? He responds that the classroom is a special place devoted to learning and that he wants students in positions that are conducive to learning. He says that he prevails, not because students are persuaded, but because they don’t want to antagonize the person giving the grades.

My first question is whether this is something that benefits the teacher or the students. If a teacher is trying to gauge levels of understanding, that does benefit students—at least those who are trying to understand. Okay, so maybe in this case there is some benefit to both. But what about making students do things where there is more benefit to the teacher? Should we ask students to make like they’re listening because we lecture better when we think everybody’s paying attention?

Here’s where I get stuck: I don’t think wearing baseball caps forwards or backwards affects learning. I think students can learn just as well, just as much with them on as with them off. And if the central activity of the classroom is learning (not teaching, which aims to facilitate, expedite, and support the learning), then shouldn’t the first priority be what fosters the best learning, not
the best teaching?

You could argue that when students contribute to our efforts, they benefit indirectly. We teach better and they learn more. But I’m still stuck on the fundamental purpose of having students in a classroom. Is it so we can teach or so they can learn?