This article originally appeared on the Hacking Andover class blog.
It is often said that the experiments you learn the most from are the ones in which you fail. What happens when the experiment is one of learning itself?
This second term of Hacking came to be largely out of the class’s almost unanimous desire to, well, keep being in Hacking. We all loved the subject matter, and I think we also found Mr. Palfrey’s teaching style to be the perfect balance of structure and flexibility; few of the classes I’ve taken at Andover have so consistently avoided being either too relaxed or too rigorous. We were also inspired by the rapid forward momentum of technology in the context of knowledge, be it in classrooms, libraries, or entirely on the web. We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity having Mr. Palfrey as a teacher offered: we could dedicate an entire class period to studying education and re-evaluating Phillips Academy as an academic institution and a community, and also have some chance of actually causing some change on campus. Many of us were excited by the prospect of leaving our mark on the school, of actually causing some real change in a way that most students are never able to: through the administration itself.
While our class was too unconventional to be formally approved as an Independent Project, to the best of my knowledge it has acted very much like one. We proposed the goals, course materials, and structure of the class in a syllabus we wrote ourselves, and outside of a weekly meeting with Mr. Palfrey we are totally unsupervised. For the most part, everything was up to us. Recently, I’ve found that Andover students given an abstract mission or a complex controversy can rarely agree enough to move past debate and focus on practical matters. In some cases, this could be a good thing; discourse, when it is respectful and thoughtful, is as valuable as it is rare, and acting without it is often dangerous and ineffective. However, when we give ourselves one term (with a grand total of 18 hours of class time) to plan, develop, and orchestrate a complete analysis and potential overhaul of education at a school with more resources (and expectations) than just about any of its kind on the face of the Earth, we might be just a little pressed for time.
At least, that’s the way I have felt throughout much of this class. While I think that our discussions in class are valuable and have certainly taught me many things about the nature of education, I honestly believe that they are not as productive as they could be with a more traditional teacher. Over the past few weeks I have come to much more deeply appreciate the vast pool of knowledge, structure, and accountability that a teacher brings to the classroom. Most of us are teaching a group of students for the first time, and while I think our struggle to find truly effective course material and homework assignments is understandable, in a comparative sense it is rather undesirable.
So, has this experimental class failed? No, I don’t think so. But I don’t think it has succeeded in living up to our expectations, either. We have been organized, but not as organized as some other classes. We have created substantive work, but not as substantive as some other classes. For better or for worse, I can scrape by without spending much time working on assignments from this class and then use that time to work on more time-pressing projects (or, admittedly, spend as many moments as I can with my friends before I leave Andover). So I do that. My Phillips Academy experience has not shaped me to be a dedicated, consistent scholar so much as an economic one; the amount of work I put into a course is roughly equivalent to the amount of work its teacher requires of me to get an average grade.
Ultimately, Hacking class so far has reaffirmed my belief that the teacher is the most important factor in a student’s education. The relatively free reign Phillips Academy faculty are given results in a strikingly clear example of how many different ways any given subject matter or skill can be taught. Take English 300, for example: while there are certainly many advantages to letting English teachers expand their curricula to cover materials they may deem more important than the standard canon of literature written by old, dead, white guys, the program almost immediately blossomed into a collection of randomly-assigned English electives with very little bearing on each other. Studying contemporary theory and film about the Algerian War develops significantly different analytical techniques than reading Shakespeare’s plays, as I found when I did both in my own English 300 class. If a student struggles to adapt to any one professor’s teaching style or materials, they are compensated with little more than a sympathetic pat on the back by their friends.
I could spend many more pages addressing the issues of widely disparate teaching and grading styles between teachers of the same department and even the same course, but I am only bringing them up here to illustrate the extraordinary influence a teacher holds over the education of their students, particularly in schools like Phillips Academy with very small class sizes. And if Hacking: A Practicum has taught me anything consistently over the past few weeks, it’s that self-education is a tremendously challenging and risky method, especially for people like me who struggle to find inner motivation. A TED talk is not a teacher. Khan Academy is not a teacher. They are audio-visual textbooks, presenting us with valuable information that we can revisit over and over, but they can never answer our questions, or explain it a different way, or make sure we’re not slacking our way through the class. The best thing that has ever happened to me has been the Andover faculty, of whom many have been the most intelligent, well-read, interesting, and compassionate people I’ve ever met. Teachers bring an irreplaceable human connection and background of learning which, for the time being, computers simply can’t replace. Our vision of designing an efficient and well-rounded class without actually learning it first was, in retrospect, probably a bit short-sighted.
That said, I think it is better to design an experiment with too optimistic a goal than to fall back to the status quo. We have still made a great deal of progress, and I think the work we have produced so far is nothing to be ashamed of. This class is an experiment, after all, and its failure could teach us just as much as its success – as long as we keep paying attention.