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Vulnerability and Education

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

In the middle of a pandemic of an infectious disease, we are beginning a new academic year in the USA. Many colleagues and universities decided to reopen to in-person classes. Honestly, I think this is not the right decision. Although I recognize that online teaching cannot replace in-person education at the same level, caring for the health and the well-being of students, faculty and staff, as well as the common good of the community around the college campus, should come before any reason that a college presents as an argument to reopen (honestly, the big reason for reopening is money).

The university where I work decided to reopen with a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online courses. I will teach online and hybrid courses; all new for me. I just had my first week of teaching and I felt strange. I was impressed with the understanding and patience of my students. I really hope we can have a good experience and we both, students and their instructor, have a significant experience of learning. However, I feel more vulnerable than ever as their instructor in the middle of this pandemic. I am not talking about the vulnerability to get infected by the coronavirus (that is also a concern), but rather an academic vulnerability. In December of 2019, after finishing the semester, I wrote an essay about being vulnerable in front of your students, as a kind of pedagogy to promote a better experience of learning. I think this essay is relevant now more than nine months ago and I would like to share it below. (The original title was: Making Yourself Vulnerable for Benefiting Your Students, but I changed to avoid an interpretation of being purposely vulnerable to the coronavirus, which is not the subject of this text)

Teaching is not only transmitting information for students’ use in an exam. Unfortunately, we are far from a model of education that overcomes the banking model, especially in educational systems that are still relying on standardized tests to select and evaluate students. These tests seem to be easy and are covered by a sense of objectivity. Professors and students like the practicality of multiple choice and the effort to do is, basically only memorization. This is a banking model because, on the one side, a professor provides value to fulfill this banking account. On the other side, there are students with a banking in their brain to hold this value, that is, the information provided by their instructors. There is a business transaction day, when the professor wants this value back and students have to provide it by answering questions. The profit for the bank will be a good grade, but if the brain didn’t hold all the information by memorization, the bank will lose and even go bankrupt by having a bad grade or failing in the class. The bottom line here is that, after the exam, the information is gone. Most students won’t remember what they learned and, more often, they will have difficulty to apply what they were supposed to learn in their reality. This shows a huge separation between the classroom and the reality of students, even in those disciplines that focus on teaching practical skills: a student learns a particular skill and knows how to do it well. However, he/she does not understand the significance of this skill for the reality where he or she will work, becoming a mechanic application. Simone Weil calls it as one of the great causes of oppression because it creates a separation between intellectual and manual work. (This occurs even in professions that have high respect in society with professionals being considered all smart people, such as medical professionals.)

This criticism of baking education is not mine, but rather from Paulo Freire. I only want to show it in the US system of education that high value is very dependent on standardized tests. Many teachers, educators, and professors are reflecting and questioning this model, and many have tried to overcome it by pedagogical experiences of a teaching that integrate knowledge, students’ lives, and social realities and contexts. Freire suggests a model of liberating education in a process to develop critical consciousness.

I want to highlight that going beyond a model of banking education requires making yourself vulnerable before your students. Educators, especially college professors have a hard time to make themselves vulnerable in front a person who does not have the same degrees and years of schooling and research as them. Humility and lack of fear for not knowing everything are essential for overcome banking model. This also means that we have to recognize that students’ brains are not an empty box for us to place information and it will be there when we want it back. In addition, students’ experiences, backgrounds, contexts and realities they are and come from matter a lot. It will be in realities, with their own personal history, that they will apply the information they receive and the knowledge they build in a classroom.

Now I share a personal teaching experience which I made myself vulnerable for the benefit of my students. When I can (considering that sometimes my college requires I use a standardized test), I don’t use conventional exams that require traditional methods of memorization to do well in the exam. I prefer to evaluate my students in what I call comprehensive collaborative exercises of evaluation (CCEE). I have different kinds of these exercises, depending on what discipline I am teaching. One of my courses is on bioethics for health care students. I will take this one as an example. One of the CCEEs is about a case analysis, in way students have to apply our class content and discussion in this practical situation. This does not seem revolutionary. Many ethics professor use it to test their students. What perhaps is not common is the process used in which I make myself vulnerable in front of my students. They received a list of cases or they can suggest their own case (one they find in the literature or developing a narrative of a case they face in their clinical practices). Following a suggested framework of key elements they have to identify in the case, they address the case in a detailed analysis, in which they have to apply medical resources to understanding the case and the ethical conflict, and use ethical resources from our course to analyze the conflict and present a path for decision-making to address this particular case. All of this must be done considering the reality and the context around the case, the people involved (from health professional, to patient, to families) and their values, and the health system, policies and legislation that matter for this situation. I don’t require a final answer solving the conflict, but rather a process of decision-making and the tools needed to address the ethical conflict.

Initially, students are excited to know that they don’t need to memorize information from our contents and readings to answer an exam at classroom with a timeframe. They like that it is a take-home exam. But it is not an exam, and later, they realize that it is not easy as they thought, because they have to be critical and analytical, using all the information they acquired in a situation in which only repeating information from textbooks does not work. I make clear that CCEE is a collaborative work, and I am available to help them in this process with individual attention. I walk with them in the CCEE process. Most students take advantage of this. Others, used to answering questions by themselves, think they can do it alone. The result of both groups of students are different. Those who do the process by themselves are usually good at providing information from the books and PowerPoints, but they fail to identify all core elements in the case and use the information to analyze the case. They also struggle to see factors from the context, such as policies and people’s values, that impact the case and cannot be ignored. The other group of students do better. They have the same difficulties, but they have an opportunity to talk about it with me and this creates a dialogical process of learning that leads them to move beyond repeating information without creating a clear connection to the case.

Regardless of taking advantage of the collaborative process with the professor, all students will individually sit with me after I grade their CCEE. We walk through all their analysis, and discuss where they could do better, the limitations in their analysis and the positive elements. In this process, students have an opportunity to see their own difficulty to be critical and move beyond banking education. Many students do not like that. They are very dependent on the grade, used to standardized exams, and have difficulty to learn something that makes sense in the world, helping them to be better professionals and citizens who have the strength to build their history. This shock of perspectives is where our vulnerability in front of a student becomes very clear.

On our side, our vulnerability occurs by exposing ourselves in front of a student, who sees college as a place to have good grades in order to achieve a diploma. Banking education works very well to help this student to achieve his/her objective goal, that is, graduating. However, this model fails most of the time to provide an authentic process of learning that goes beyond repeating information or practical skills. When, you challenge a student to go beyond the banking model, this student will question you, claim that you are not objective, and show us things that we don’t know about them and their background. Because of this dominant model, the student has difficulty to see beyond the immediate goal, that is, his/her grade. However, the student and professor will realize that both need to learn new things in order for a mutual process of building knowledge to take place.

*Alexandre A. Martins is an assistant professor at Marquette University em Wisconsin, EUA. Author of several articles and books in social ethics and bioethics, such as “Bioética, Saúde e Vulnerabilidade: em defesa da vida dos mais vulneráveis” (Paulus, 2011); “The Cry of the Poor: liberation ethics and justice in health care”(Lexington Books, 2020)

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