Posts Tagged ‘James Lang’

In 2015, three teachers in Atlanta were convicted of changing student answers on standardized tests and sentenced to seven three years in prison, Volkswagen admitted to programming engines to run differently during emissions tests than in daily use and set aside billions of dollars to deal with the situation, and countless students across the country cheated on exams. Although the scope and consequences of these actions vary widely, James Lang’s 2013 book Cheating Lessons suggests that they have similar origins. On page 35, Lang lists the “four features of a learning or competing environment that may pressure individuals into cheating,” including:

  1. An emphasis on performance
  2. High stakes riding on the outcome
  3. An extrinsic motivation for success
  4. A low expectation of success

In Volkswagen’s case, their diesel engines since 2009 have emitted between 10 and 40 times the nitrous oxide allowed by law when being used normally. These cheats date back to 2007, when VW’s CEO set the goal of surpassing Toyota as the world’s largest automaker, pressuring employees to produce the larger, more powerful cars that Americans like while also increasing fuel economy to meet more stringent standards. VW has also maintained that executives did not know about the cheating, blaming it on the individual actions (however unlikely) of engineers.

For college students, Lang distinguishes between “mastery” and “performance” orientations. In VW’s case, there was intense pressure to meet the CEO’s goals (compared, perhaps, to improving engine technology for its own sake). This pressure also involved high stakes. Engineers who could not produce the products promised by the CEO may have found their jobs in danger. This was also an extrinsic motivation that must have, in the eyes of the engineers, seemed impossible to achieve (better fuel economy is typically associated with smaller, less powerful cars, which is why European countries with higher gas prices are often offered a wider range of lower-powered engines than Americans can choose from when shopping for a car). The same factors were at play in Atlanta, where an emphasis on performance (increasing test scores) combined with high stakes (job loss and/or school restructuring), extrinsic motivation, and a low expectation of success that led educators to change test answers. (Michelle Rhee’s time as Chancellor of Washington D.C.’s schools is similarly associated with extremely high stakes and accusations of cheating.)

Most college professors cannot do anything about VW or high school cheating scandals (even if we would like to reduce the reliance on standardized tests!) but we can work to prevent these factors from prevailing in our classrooms. James argues that by emphasizing mastery rather than performance, providing a wide range of exams and assignments rather than just a few heavily-weighted course requirements, reducing external pressure on students from parents, and communicating our belief that students can succeed we can create environments that will reduce cheating more than simply offering multiple exam forms or using assigned seating arrangements.

Some of these are easier than others, but I think that the examination of the context in which college learning and assessment takes place is really important in discussions of academic dishonesty.

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For a number (how large a number I can’t say, but I am positive that this is true for some number) of job market candidates, writing a statement of teaching philosophy is a daunting task.  First of all, candidates have to decide whether or not they have any teaching philosophy at all.  Then they need to either explain that philosophy or make one up.  Unfortunately, search committees these days are unlikely to accept a candidate who says, “I’m a good teacher.  Trust me on this.”

Personally, I didn’t realize that I had a teaching philosophy until I actually sat down to think about the classes I had taught.  While I had the benefit of having taught a lot of different classes, anybody who has taught should be able to think about why they arranged their class(es) the way they did and anybody who has not taught should be able to think about the qualities of their best classes as students and how they can replicate those qualities in their own courses.  This is only the beginning of the actual writing process, but it obviously helps if you know where you’re headed before you leave the station.

A recent post by James Lang over at Inside Higher Ed details four steps to creating a memorable teaching philosophy.  Some of his advice echoes my own experiences, but while my focus was largely on writing something about my teaching, Lang places his emphasis on writing a statement that will not bore search (or tenure) committees to tears.  He concludes:

If you follow my advice, you’re probably still going to end up with a teaching statement that looks pretty similar to the rest of them in some ways. Every fingerprint has swirly lines, and every teaching philosophy will very likely include whatever buzzwords and catchphrases are making the rounds in academe.

The best you can hope for is that, if you take the time to craft a good one, the same principle that applies to fingerprints will apply to teaching philosophies: They may all look the same to the untrained eye, but the experts can tell them apart.

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