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Grace Shaw

Dr. Lucia Elden

English 111

6 November 2017

Learning is Messy

The sad truth about writing academic essays, and learning in general, is students are

masters of taking the teachers instruction and only focusing on reaching the expectations of

those requirements. Instead of writing an essay full of critical thinking, thought provoking topics,

unique points of view, etc., students focus more directly on the requirements of the assignment.

For example, a student is assigned a three-page paper. When he/she prioritizes the page

requirement more than well-developed content, the student is often prone to write about

nonsense to fill space. My high school English teacher called it The Art of BSing. This could

be because the student often feels that meeting the requirements like a checklist is their only

form of control in the situation. They cant control how the teacher critiques their writing, but

they can control meeting all the superficial requirements. This directs student effort towards

complying with the requirements point of view, and not their own. A checklist is detrimental to

a students growth in their education because it isnt natural. The consequence they face when

using this checklist mentality for writing is a paper that is dull, insincere, lacking voice and

opinion, and is all around unappealing to read.

The enforcers of the checklist are, obviously, some teachers. The stereotypical teacher is

known for giving the requirement list, grading based on that requirement list, and looking no

further than the requirement list. Freedom philosopher Paulo Freire wrote in his book Pedagogy
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of the Oppressed, The solution is not to integrate themselves into the structure of oppression,

but to transform that structure so that they can become beings for themselves (74). Freires use

of the word structure can be used to represent the structure that many teachers hold their

students accountable to. Superficial expectations such as a three-page minimum paper, with three

sources, all used from academic sources, is an example of what clouds the minds of so many

potentially intellectual writers. Freire encourages teachers to not base the requirements on what

they want to see, but to focus on what the student wants to say and how they want to say it.

Alexander Calandra was an emeritus professor of physics at Washington University and wrote

about an interesting encounter he had with a student about a physics question. The student was

told to answer the question, Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building

with the aid of a barometer (159). When the student gave his answer to his professor, the

professor gave the student zero credit, due to the fact that he did not answer the question the way

the professor wanted. The students answer was correct, but he did not like the way the answer

was found. After the professor met with Calandra to hopefully be an impartial judge on the

subject, Calandra found that the student knew the solution that the professor wanted him to use.

In fact, he had many different possible solutions. However, when Calandra asked the student if

he knew the proper solution, the student said yes, but, He was so fed up with high school and

college instructors trying to teach him how to think (160). In this case, the professor that came

to Calandra wanting the student to answer the question according to his point of view, and not

the students. Solving math or physics is almost always based on a checklist. When one is trying

to solve a math or physics problem, often it requires following one step, into another step, into

another step, and so on. The teachers point of view was a checklist that he demanded to be

followed, while the student refused to participate in that perspective. The teacher was too
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stubborn to transform his structure, and truly believed that his structure was the only correct way.

As a sociologist, college professor, and author of Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice,

Jack Mezirow brings up the concepts of point of view and frame of reference in his writing.

According to Mezirow, Frame of reference is the structure of an assumption through which we

understand our experiences (87). This frame of reference is the structure of which students

build their creativity. When the teacher establishes control of the students voice and creativity,

they do so most often through a list of requirements. Freire says that teachers should be

transforming the structure of their teaching to fit, as Mezirow says, the students frame of

reference. When the teachers effort is shown through taking the time to know and understand

their students best frames of references, and transform the structure accordingly, then they can

rightfully refer to themselves as teachers. A teacher can target their effort towards building a

learning atmosphere that replaces the checklist mentality with a more creative and personal one.

However, learning is not a one-way street. Some teachers have all the enthusiasm

possible to build a beautiful and healthy learning environment for the students, but the student

simply chooses not to participate. Or, the student may even beg for a checklist, because they

dont know any different. Hope is not lost at this point. All it takes is further analysis from the

teacher to find out what is holding the student back from reaching their potential. As Freire says,

Knowledge comes from the invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient,

continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other (72).

In other words, Freire knows that the road the teacher travels to pursue students is never easy.

The teacher must be committed to getting he/shes student closer to their level of understanding

on the subject being taught. Even after the demonstration of that commitment, a student may still

shut the teacher down. Nevertheless, it is the persistence the teacher gives that pays off in the
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end, which is when the students eyes are opened to the bigger picture, beyond the checklist.

Mezirow reveals the flaws of checklist thinking by saying, Often, adult learners immediate

focus is on the practical, short-term objectivesit is crucial to recognize that learning needs

must be defined so as to recognize both short-term objectives and long-term goals (90). In this

case, a student may beg for a checklist. The short-term Mezirow is referring to is the

requirements given to the student, but the long term is how well they go beyond the short-term.

The person who Mezirow is asking to recognize the learning needs of students is, of course, the

teacher who is influencing them. The importance of knowing and understanding the

interrelationship between short-term and long-term objectives is what differentiates a good

leaner from a great learner. A good learner will learn to stay on the safe and shallow end of the

pool, but a great learner will take the risk of diving deep into the water. The great learner does

this because he/she knows that learning occurs in unconventional ways and methods. Students

with a checklist mentality will focus solely on the assignment, or short-term objective, while the

teacher should be encouraging the student to see the bigger aspect, or the long-term objective.

The long-term is looking into and focusing on their lifelong learning, which is also a main

characteristic of an autonomous learner. These unconventional and unique approaches to

education should be practiced by teachers in all types of classes, because it is where they will see

the most growth and development from their students. The structure needs to be transformed to

not only require short-term objectives, but also thinking about the long-term ones as well. The

teachers role during a students desire for a checklist is opening the students mind up to what

goes beyond the assignment, which is where the assignment fits in with their education and long-

term goals.
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One powerful tool to change the checklist mentality, which is too frequently overlooked

in our education system, is discourse. This includes using the discourse of other students, but

also converting students to joining the discourse of effective learning. The discourse of effective

learning/education is contrary to a checklist, because it allows for learning outside of the class.

Exercising a students discourse to help them reach an understanding is best utilized in the

classroom. Gerald Graff, Professor of English and education at the University of Illinois, lives

and breathes discourse participation in the classroom. Graff believes that our education system is

lacking in the development of intellectually equipped students when they do not encourage

students to take their nonacademic interests as objects of academic study (204). Academics are,

in this theory, best implemented when so-called nonacademic interests such as cars, rap music,

or sports are introduced. Discourse isnt just a comfort zone for students, it is their way of

thought. Discourse is the oxygen that allows the brain to remain functional. When regarding

discourse incorporation in the classroom, Freire writes, Liberation is a praxis: the action and

reflection of men upon their world in order to transform it (79). The world of each student must

be constantly incorporated into their learning in order to further understand the teaching. When

the requirements given to a student are nowhere related to the way they think and problem solve

the most effectively, it becomes downright unjust. Yet, students have to be a praxis through their

effort, not just the teachers effort. The teacher can set the stage for the student, but it is the

students role to perform the play. Freire also sees the exclusion of discourse as oppression of a

mans rights to his own mind. He states, To alienate men from their own decision-making is to

change them into objects. Students cannot have the ability of decision making in writing, or

learning when the teacher alienates their point of view from the teaching. How can a student

grow in their learning without some sort of connection to the learning? As a member of the rap
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music discourse community, it is second nature for me to not only analyze, but also synthesize

what the artist is saying. The question is, how can a teacher harness that ability of synthesizing

rap music to help the student synthesize in the classroom? It involves the incorporation of that

discourse, which as a direct effect brings in the frame of reference in that discourse to help the

student understand. As described before, discourse is also a powerful tool to combat the checklist

when the discourse community of education is introduced to a student. Becoming a member of

the education discourse is not only a serious commitment, but an essential component to learning

inside and outside of the classroom. Mezirow says that it is the teachers duty to assist learners to

participate effectively in discourse (91). A teacher should be a professional at the discourse of

education, and should also be a professional at recruiting new members. Still, the student must be

willing to join this educational discourse. The teacher cannot force them to join. Accordingly,

Mezirow states that this recruitment must be free from coercion (91). Instead of coercing the

student through unrelated requirements and expectations, the teacher should persuade the student

to join the discourse through the incorporation of the students personal discourse. Graffs tactic

of personal discourse in the classroom can be used to reach Mezirows dream of each student

joining the discourse of education. By joining the discourse of education, students are leaving the

old and one-track-minded ways of a checklist.

Each educator has the option of placing meaningful requirements on the student, or

disregard the students needs by placing careless requirements. Meaningful requirements are as

simple as asking the students to analyze, problematize, and express their thoughts with their own

voice and opinion. On the contrary, careless requirements are superficial and monotonous, and

often show the low expectations that the teacher has for the students. It is that mindset of low

expectations that handicaps a student to blossom into the awesome learner they have potential to
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be. Meaningful requirements are far from a checklist mentality, while careless requirements are

based solely on a checklist. In short, the teachers efforts, which are often displayed through their

requirements and expectations, have a big impact on a students learning. Mike Rose, who has

teaching experience in educational environments such as kindergarten, job training, and adult

literacy programs, is the epitome of teacher effort. In his article Politics of Remediation, he

gives his personal experience on how teacher effort, and the lack thereof, can be the make-or-

break for students. In one of his experiences with a student named James, Rose hypothesizes that

the students prior curriculum wasnt doing a lot to address his weaknesses or nurture his

strengths (21). James put all of his effort and time into a paper based on meeting the

requirements, He did an adequate job of summarizing articles, but fell short analyzing them. The

curriculum Rose speaks of is referring to is not only Jamess past educators, but the requirements

that the educators placed on James. They put requirements on the James without understanding

where he stood in his overall learning career. The problem with this teaching style is some

teachers try to implement a one size fits all teaching method. This does more than fail, it

depletes the educational learning curve. English Professor of Mid Michigan Community College

Barry Alford and Freire also contribute to Roses emphasis on teacher effort by describing the

role of classroom narration. Freire preaches that when the teacher plays the role of narrator, it

(the teachers narration) turns them (students) into receptacles (71). This introduces Freires

Banking Concept, in which teachers are the depositors of information into the students mind,

and the student does nothing beyond holding the information. Freire also describes incorrect

narration as, the teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized,

and predictable (71). Teaching in this format is poses a serious problem of carelessness on the

teachers part, and will lead to a dead end in learning. When a teacher doesnt put forth the same
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emotion in their teaching that they expect from students, it ends up becoming a lose-lose

situation. In contrast, Alford shares the solution to this problem: student narration. First, he opens

up with the question, How, exactly, do we teach our students to think in the complex, rich ways

we expect and value? (279). Then, he continues by describing the solution as, listening to my

studentsby giving them free rein in classroom discussions helps make them owners of the

classroom and the conversations (280). Instead of teachers giving into what Freire paints as a

weak excuse of education, they should base the curriculum and structure around the students

ownership of the classroom, like Alford exercises. Learning is meant to be messy, unorganized,

or down-right unusual; that is something a checklist mentality cant offer. The basis of this hot

mess style of learning starts with the teachers effort to communicate with the students. Mezirow

advises that the ideal form of learning is not instrumental (through manipulation or controlling

the environment or students), but is more communicative (learning the meaning of what is being

communicated) (88). A more communicative approach to learning brings out the students true

point of view, instead of the student working to reach the requirements point of view. Which,

spoiler alert, is nothing more than meeting the lackluster expectations of a mediocre structure.

Its about reaching a consensus between the teacher and the student to understand the

requirements and expectations of the two. The student does have free-will to either be open or

closed to classroom communication. But, when the student and teacher do put forth equal effort

to this communicative approach to learning, the results are astounding.

Problematizing is a fair requirement to put on a student. With proper practice,

problematizing is a gateway to becoming an effective learner, and getting over the checklist

mentality. Although not easy, it pays off in the end with a self-confident habit of mind. I have

heard from multiple English professors, and have seen for myself, that medical students in
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English class often choose to cling to checklists. They memorize things like the femur bone is

located superiorly to the fibula and tibia. This takes no effort beyond memorizing, or depositing

the information the professor gives them. They see little challenge in this method of learning,

and do not want to learn any other way. When it comes to English class, medical students

struggle greatly because of how much they are required to think outside the requirements. This

makes problematizing difficult for them, because they do not want to problematize. They want to

know the answer, and want to see the one way to get to the answer. However, with English,

finding the answer to a problem takes time and effort into understanding and challenging the

views of others, and yourself. Alford urges for educators to influence learning that engages

students to think through a problem, instead of looking at the problem as already solved by some

compartmentalized application (280). When learning is a constant practice of critical thinking, it

allows students to grow intellectually, and as a person. If the problem was treated as already

solved, there would be no worth in education. Problematizing puts the wealth of learning

something new in reality. For example, if the requirements put on students were based on

something that can be reached by anyone, there would be no challenge and no growth. Growth in

the classroom occurs when a problem is given to be solved by the student, and then resolved, and

then resolved. Mezirow agrees by saying, Learning takes place through discovery and the

imaginative use of metaphors to solve and redefine problems (91). Discovery and imagination

goes hand-in-hand with problematizing; problematizing goes hand in hand with learning. When

one learns from a checklist habit of mind, they completely eliminate problematizing from the

equation. Freire advises a teaching style that is opposite from the banking concept he discusses.

He appropriately named it the problem posing concept of education. He describes it as

education that involves a constant unveiling of reality (81). From posing a problem, the problem
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is solved, and the student discovers a new piece of reality each time he practices it. For each

unveiling of reality through problem posing, the student learns to take control of their education.

This is a requirement that all teachers should impose on their students, because the journey to

this skill is one that is meaningful and very intricate.

Coming in as a freshman at Mid Michigan Community College, I have learned quickly

that all my classes are based on a checklist mentality. In Anatomy and Physiology class, I am

learned to memorize every bone in the body that my teacher gives a list of. In Medical

Terminology, I am asked to learn 54 terms per week. In order to stay afloat in these classes, I had

to put all my time and effort in only working to memorize the content. Taking the time to

understand it, break it down, and problematize it took way too long. I was clinging to my

checklist for my dear life. However, after a semester in my English class, I have been able to

stray away from the checklist in these other classes. I have done this through reading all the

different philosophies of so many famous authors, synthesizing them, and going beyond

summarizing into critical analysis. This has given me the drive to go beyond the checklist in my

other classes, and engage in learning that is the beautiful mess of autonomous learning.
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Works Cited

Alford, Barry. Freirean Voices, Student Choices. Exploring Relationships: Globalization

and Learning in the 21st Century. Pearson Learning Solutions, 2013, pp. 279-282.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary Ed. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. "Hidden Intellectualism." They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter

in Academic Writing. Ed. G. Graff and C. Birkenstein. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 2010,

pp. 198-205.

Mezirow, Jack. Transforming Learning: Theory to Practice. Exploring Connections: Learning in the

21st Century. Person Education Inc. 2016.

Rose, Mike. The Politics of Remediation. Conversations in Context: Identity, Knowledge, and College

Writing. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998: 32-48. Print.