Pedagogical Puberty

A syllabus is a contract. It is a promise. It is an expression of the teacher’s pedagogy. And, in the wrong hands, in my hands, in the beginning of my teacher journey, it was an overly structured soul-sucking instrument of oppression.

How so?

I gave my students what they wanted. I told them what to do. I told them when to do it. I scanned and posted my lecture notes. My assignments had overviews. There were lists and lists of expectations. There were also helpful hints on how to succeed. I made available my grading rubrics. Points were broken down into various categories. And, for each category, I gave my students a brief one sentence explanation of what it meant to earn an A, B, C, D or F.

Research papers had formidable format guidelines. I dictated the font size and type (12, Times New Roman). I dictated the margins (1 inch all around), the line spacing (1.5), and even the placement of the page numbers (centered at the bottom of each page). I implored them not to justify. I gave them an example of a title page to slavishly follow. I also gave them access to “benchmark” papers written by previous students. “Do not”, I told them, “Deliver your paper in a plastic cover. Just staple it. In the upper left-hand corner, of course.”

I did even more hand-holding in my Principles of Microeconomics course. I took most of the questions on the exams from the problems at the end of each chapter. I told them this. I even gave them the answers to all the problems at the end of each chapter. Sometimes, instead of making them memorize and regurgitate formulas, I just gave them to them. I put multiple-choice problems on the exams; but, not too many. With multiple choice, they either got it right or they did not. Hell, if I asked enough multiple-choice questions on an exam, there was a machine that would do most the grading for me (just for the record, I never ever used that machine). And, on their exams, they could get 100%. They could get a sticker on the inside cover of their blue book. They could show their sticker to their loved-ones. And, in turn, their loved could know with confidence that they had excelled.

Over the years, I dedicated hours of research and thoughtful reflection to designing my syllabi and their accompanying overviews, expectations, helpful hints, and grading rubrics. I was proud of my pedagogy. “Only someone who really cared about their students would go to these lengths” I would say to myself. Indeed, I was so enamored with my pedagogy that there were times when I would lean back in my chair, kick my feet up on the office desk, and gaze lovingly at one of my grading rubrics and think “What a perfect expression of my pedagogy”.

Too bad it was a pedagogy forged in fear and designed to maximize my control over my students. Too bad it was a pedagogy that diminished their responsibility, lowered their level of accountability, and extended their adolescence. Too bad it was a pedagogy whose student-produced output was graded, stored in a closet, and promptly disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner after the semester-and-a-half waiting period came to an end. No one acted on their knowledge. No one acted on their effort. No one took a second look. No one outside of themselves was changed (and that may be assuming too much). Too bad it was a pedagogy that created distance between me and my students. Don’t bother me. Look it up in the syllabus. It’s all in the syllabus. Too bad it was a pedagogy that taught my students to raise their hand when they wanted to engage, acquiesce to my relative expertise and integrate seamlessly into the cubicle matrix upon graduation.

It was a destructive pedagogy in need of a revolution. I call this revolution Rewilding — a pedagogical revolution designed to give my students what they needed and not what they wanted. And, what was it that they needed? They needed to learn how to fail. They needed to learn how to be with their fears and still act. They needed to learn how to navigate this world from a place of agency and not passivity. They needed to learn how to walk into the arena alone, get an ass-kicking and get back up. And, they needed to learn these things right away and in my presence. They needed to mature. And, in order to accomplish that, my pedagogy had to mature. I had to mature as an educator.


I’m writing a book on my pedagogy called Rewild School, blogpost-by-blogpost. This is one of those blogposts. You can learn more by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. — shawn


Photo by Roel Dierckens on Unsplash