a brief philosophy of “anti-teaching”

Without a doubt, this is my favorite place in the blogosphere, so it is a great honor to be invited as a guest blogger. I think anybody who reads Savage Minds will immediately see the contributions blogging (especially group-blogging) might add to anthropological discourse.

This little corner of the blogosphere seems to be the perfect place to begin a discussion about some rather strange teaching habits I have picked up in the past couple years. Lately I find myself doing such bizarre activities in the classroom that I can scarcely refer to myself as a “teacher.” So this is my “anti-teaching” philosophy, illustrated with a short description of the “World Simulation,” a massive class activity that provides the primary structure for my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course here at Kansas State University. On the surface, the World Simulation appears to be little more than “just a game” but underneath is a good deal of theory – both pedagogical and anthropological – which I look forward to discussing here over the next two weeks.

The Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course here is – in a word – huge. It is taught in 2 formats (rotating Spring/Fall) – one with 200 students, the other 400. I once thought the large size was outrageous and probably unique, but have since discovered that such large classes are commonplace, especially at state schools. The rest of this short description will probably also sound familiar to many of you if you replace “Kansas” with your own state. About half of the students are from rural Kansas while the other half are from suburbia. Very few of them have any significant experience with cultural diversity. Most of the students have never traveled outside of the United States and many have never left Kansas. There are usually only a handful of majors in the class, and about two handfuls of students who know what “anthropology” is before they walk in on the first day. The class fulfills several requirements, so many students arrive with the hope of putting forth the minimal effort required to get the grade and get out. I used to think of all this as a tremendous challenge – perhaps even somewhat hopeless. Now I see it as an opportunity, and an advantage. Anti-teaching seems to thrive on chaos.

Disclaimer: Before I go much further in my description of “anti-teaching” I might say that I do not recommend it for everybody, nor do I think anti-teaching is necessarily superior to teaching. Both must co-exist, for together they are greater than the sum of their parts. If you are a “teacher” please do not take offense to my anti-teaching philosophy. All I am attempting to provide is a necessary companion to traditional teaching.

Teaching is about providing good information. Anti-teaching is about inspiring good questions. Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it struck me that if we are ultimately trying to create “active lifelong learners” with “critical thinking skills” and an ability to “think outside the box” it might be best to start by getting students to ask better questions. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where to start. I have read and heard a great deal of advice on how to ask good questions of students – non-rhetorical, open-ended, etc. – but nobody has ever told me anything about how to get students to ask good questions.

When I talk about “good questions,” I mean the kind of questions that force students to challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions and see their own underlying biases. Oftentimes the answer to a good question is irrelevant – the question is an insight in itself. The only answer to the best questions is another good question. And so the best questions send students on rich and meaningful lifelong quests, question after question after question.

Unfortunately such great questions are rarely asked by students, especially in large mandatory introductory courses. Much more common are administrative questions such as, “What do we need to know for this test?” This may be the worst question of all. It reflects the fact that for many (students and teachers alike), education is a relatively meaningless game of grades rather than an important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create. I don’t think it is the student’s fault for asking this question. As teachers we have created and continue to maintain an education system that inevitably produces this question. If we accept Dewey’s notion that people learn what they do, the lecture format which is the mainstay of teaching (especially in large introductory courses) teaches students to sit in neat rows and to respect, believe, and defer to authority (the teacher). Tests often measure little more than how well they can recite what they have been told. Hoping to memorize only just as much as necessary to succeed on the test, they ask that question I never want to hear – the one exception to the rule that “there is no such thing as a bad question.” Frustrated with this question, and hoping to get my students to ask better questions, I decided to get to work creating a learning environment more conducive to producing the types of questions that create lifelong learners rather than savvy test-takers.

Since I dedicated myself to this task, I have found myself slowly transforming from a teacher to an anti-teacher, developing methods that subvert the traditional lecture format and trying to create a learning environment more conducive to asking good questions. I eventually came to the conclusion that “teaching” is a hindrance to learning. The word, “teacher” in itself suggests that learning requires teaching. In fact, the best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that students are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives. Soon after I set out on this course I found a book that seemed to resonate with my philosophy, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Borrowing from Marshal McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “the medium is the message,” Postman and Weingartner argue that the environment (or “medium”) of learning is more important than the content (the “message”) and therefor teachers should begin paying more attention to the learning environment they help to create. The emphasis is on “managing” this environment rather than teaching per se.

This is not in any way a cop out of “real” teaching. In fact, approaching a class of 400 as a “manager” is a tremendous task. It would be much easier to simply give in to tradition and deliver a standard lecture. But while the sheer numbers of students are a burden in one sense, there is also tremendous potential. Think of the knowledge and life experience that is in that single room, if only I could find a way to harness it! I wanted the students to be fully engaged, talking to one another, grappling with interesting questions, and exploring any and all resources to find answers (and more questions). I wanted them to really get a strong sense of the importance of what we discuss in cultural anthropology. I wanted them to expand their empathy, to actually try to experience the life-worlds of others. Above all, I wanted them to recognize their own importance in helping to shape an increasingly globally interconnected world society.

So that is why I set out to create the World Simulation. Students are asked to imagine the world in the classroom. We create a map that mimics the geographical, environmental, and biological diversity of our real world. The map is laid onto a map of the classroom, and students are asked to imagine themselves living in the environment that maps onto them. The class is divided into 15-20 groups of about 12-20 students in each group. Each group is challenged to create their own cultures to survive in their own unique environments.

The course is laid out in a fairly traditional way, proceeding from subsistence and exchange through kinship, social organization, political organization, and ending with religion and art (from infrastructure through social structure and ending with superstructure). I am not completely comfortable with this layout, for fear that the “message” may be that environment determines technology which determines social structure which in turn determines superstructure. Fortunately, this has not been the message. The creativity of the students in creating their cultures subverts any simple monocausal determinism (just as human creativity does in the real world). Environmental determinism is just one theory on the table as students try to create a reasonably realistic culture that could exist within their given environment. To add realism, students are required to provide comparisons to real life cultures at every step along the way, justifying why they have chosen to construct their culture in one way rather than another (sometimes creating elaborate histories to explain some unique characteristic). Three weeks before the end of the semester, all groups have completed their culture and submit a final ethnography to me. I read these over, and begin planning the main event: the world simulation.

The World Simulation itself only takes 75-100 minutes and moves through 650 metaphorical years, 1450-2100. It all takes place in large room where all of the “cultures” interact with one another with props for currencies, natural resources, and other elements that recreate the world system. I will explain this in more detail in a future post, but essentially we attempt to simulate (not “act out”) world history in an attempt to understand the underlying social and cultural processes that interconnect us all. The ultimate goal is to allow students to actually experience how the world system works and explore some of the most important questions now facing humanity such as those of global inequality, globalization, culture loss, environmental degradation, and in the worst case scenario, genocide.

The simulation is recorded on 5 roaming digital video cameras and edited into one final “world history” video using clips from “real world” history to illustrate the correspondences. We watch the video together during the last week of class and have amazing moments together as we contemplate our world. By then it seems as if we have the whole world right before our eyes in one single classroom – profound cultural differences, profound economic differences, profound challenges for the future … and one humanity. We find ourselves as co-creators of our world, and the future is up to us. It is in this environment that even the worst questions take on all the characteristics of the best: What do we need to know for this test?

23 thoughts on “a brief philosophy of “anti-teaching”

  1. good god, Mike (welcome!, btw) — that sounds AMAZING! I’m curious, now, about how you manage it in terms of _you_ (versus in terms of your mega-class). Like, is this the only class you teach that semester? How many hours of labour would you say it is to produce this kind of learning atmosphere for students? Does it swallow you whole or kind of run itself once you have the framework figured out?

    (I confess that all of these questions are like the professorial version of the student question: will it be on the test? b/c what I really want to know is: how much work is it to do this?)

  2. Pleased to see Savage Minds goes connectivity!

    In regards of teaching cultural anthropology, Mike, how do you deal with simplification that I suppose to be conditional to any simulation? I find hard to imagine that system in concrete terms.

    For example, in the beginning you said “we create a map that mimics the geographical, environmental, and biological diversity of our real world.”

    What parameters are given?

    [btw: “I think anybody who reads Savage Minds will immediately see the contributions blogging (especially group-blogging) might add to anthropological discourse.”

    I think so, too–at least almost everybody is ought to.]

  3. How long are the scheduled lectures and do you have teaching assistants? It would seem to me that this would affect the ability to actually do the excersise. At my undergraduate institutions, lecture periods were usually 1 hour for Monday, Wednesday and Friday or 1 and a half hours for Tuesday and Thursday. Where I am now, lecture periods are 50 minutes 3 days a week, 50 minutes for two lectures plus one 50 minute discussion section or 1 hour and 15 minutes a week. At my undergraduate instituion it would seem that this type of excersise could work with the time alloted. At my current graduate institution, I don’t see it working (the lost 10 or 15 minutes may not seem like a lot but it adds up and limits the ability to do many activities).

    Also, how do you deal with getting across anthropological concepts about things like gender and race. These topics seem to be the ones that students often times discount (or at worst, they think the professor is lying to them. I had some students in the class I TAed last semester who thought we were lying when we (the teacher and TA’s) described the existence of 3rd genders and the birth of intersex infants).

  4. Here is some basic background information that people have requested:

    In the Spring I have 200 students. We meet twice per week for 75 minutes each class. In the Fall I have 400 students & 10 undergraduate TAs (who have taken the course before). We meet as a group of 400 students for 50 minutes Monday and Wednesday and then the students are split into groups of 20 for a 50 minute recitation with their TA.

    I still *do* lecture, but I view it is as just one particular technique and not my sole method. The great thing about mixing this kind of activity with the lectures is that even the more dry parts of the semester take on meaning because students are actively listening, trying to figure out how they will piece together their own culture. I also get great feedback on what they understand, misunderstand, or just need more information about.

    To Orange, I will show an actual example of a map in my next full post and explain more about the parameters that are given and what the students fill in themselves. You raise a much more important question though, about the necessity of simplifying in order for the simulation to work. This aspect of the simulation almost led me to abandon the whole thing as I started to think it through and plan for it. Instead I found two ways to deal with it: 1. I challenge my students to tell me where the simulation is oversimplified and make their own case for how the simulation should change for the next time it is performed. This way they are not simply accepting our imaginary world “as is” and are instead actively thinking about how the real world works and how we may have misrepresented it in our simulation. (Even if the simulation fails miserably, it has succeeded in getting students to think about how the world works!) 2. I encourage the students to use the simplification as a canvas on which they can build and/or interpret complexity. In a lecture format I only have so much time to cover the effects of colonization – perhaps 50 minutes – not enough to really explore all of the different facets. In the World Simulation I can encourage each student to think about how colonization would affect their culture in multiple ways and at multiple levels (e.g. infrastructure, social structure, superstructure). Sometimes this is to complex to be incorporated into the simulation, but they are asked to do a reflection paper immediately following the simulation in which they write their own “cultural history.” This written format allows them to explore some complexities they might not have had the time or means to express in the simulation.

    And finally, how much time does all this take me? I put this together for the first time during a semester in which the Intro course was the only course I was teaching. During that semester it completely consumed almost every waking minute of my life. In the words of Ozma, it “swallowed me whole.” Fortunately, what I accomplished during that semester provided a good framework for what I have done since then, and my prep times are now fairly normal. The exception is the week before and after the simulation. The week before requires a full day of getting the props ready, training helpers, acquiring cameras for the filming, etc. Immediately following the simulation requires capturing and logging all of the video, comparing this with student reports of what happened, and editing the final video together. This usually takes 2 long days.

    Also in response to Anthro Grad Student Guy, you asked how I address those tricky subjects like gender and race – and the problem with students distrusting what we say. Building trust is a tricky thing, especially when we are dealing with the topics we deal with in environments where certain ideas are not immediately welcomed. Of course, trust and mutual respect between student and teacher are absolutely essential for the World Simulation to work. So I have a whole philosophy about that too – on which I hope to elaborate in a future post.

    Thank you all for the comments and questions!

  5. Certainly does sound fascinating, I look forward to reading the upcoming posts on this simulation event. I’m thinking, though, to really get it across so that other (anti)teachers could emulate and elaborate, you’d need more than this blog. How about a book, with a DVD containing documentary footage and electronic materials, etc? I double dare you.

  6. My teaching philosophy has always been premised on the idea that my main purpose as a teacher is not so much to convey knowledge but to teach skills: namely how to read and write critically. Unfortunately, proper teaching of these skills requires small class sizes. I can’t imagine spending the time on 400 papers that I do on a class of 30. Especially when I often encourage multiple re-writes! It seems that if we except such large class sizes as a fact of life, we must radically rethink the very purpose of teaching as you have tried to do. Otherwise you are just a performer and your students are just a passive audience.

  7. I also wanted to add that I played a game like this in high school, although I can’t remember the name. It was more narrow in scope and basically taught the concept of triangular trade between Europea, Africa, and the colonial Americas. I remember it as being both fun and educational.

  8. Mike, This is, I concur, absolutely fantastically supercalidociously magnificentatious. I teach at a small university, a very small university, and I do not teach intro, but I do end up facing similar problems even with 40-50 students, and have experimented with simulations/mock trials etc. and found them to be the most rewarding aspect of the class, and the students do as well. I can’t wait to read more…

  9. [“mate: your iceblock is well received here” ? *cnr]

    To Mike,
    that really sounds like teaching in ongoing process.
    Looking forward to learn more!

  10. As a former student of Dr. Wesch (and hopefully future, if I can FINALLY manage to get into his Religion in Culture course!) who participated in the first world simulation, I have to say that it was one of the best educational experiences I have ever had. I’m one of those people who actually enjoys listening to lectures, but I loved the hands-on aspect of it all, too. It really gives you a sense of the way the world works outside of your own little box. As for Dr. Wesch’s lectures…they’re anything but dry. They are in turns side-splittingly funny, serious and thought-provoking, and sometimes just so moving that it’s difficult not to break down and cry in the middle of class. (Just try sitting in the front row and pretending that you just have something in your eye. You really can’t pull that off.) Participating in and then reviewing the world sim was no different; it brought the best questions, and I believe, the best qualities out of us all. The world sim makes all those statistics you see in documentaries and in textbooks seem a little more real. It makes your understanding a little more clear. The last question you’d want to ask after this is “What do I need to know for the test?” You’re really too busy struggling with questions whose answers really just lead to more questions.

    Thank you, Dr. Wesch, for helping me learn by doing. I look forward to your next post.

  11. As a student of and assistant to Dr. Wesch I felt it might be helpful to provide my perspective. I did not have the opportunity to take Dr. Wesch´s intro course, but I taught for him last fall as one of his 10 TAs and will do so again next fall. As an assistant having not experienced the World Simulation before I was uncertain about its effectiveness and its purpose. However, after seeing the affect it had last fall and then trying to teach the same introductory course with a different professor and without the World Simulation this spring, I have come to a full appreciation of the project.

    The World Sim gives the recitation classes a project that is worked on every week and is entirely of the students own creation. As Dr. Wesch may elaborate later on in his “anti-teaching” philosophy, it makes the subject matter relate directly to the students lives, something essential for learning to occur. I think that it reveals anthropology to the students. It experientially shows them the task the real anthropologist assumes when attempting to study culture full of frustrations, false assumptions, complexities, and joys (perhaps similar to real fieldwork). The students feel and experience these things rather than just being told them. The World Sim makes my job as instructor very easy because I do not have to try to force concepts down the student´s throats as so often is the method in the education system we´ve created, I simply guide them and ensure that they stay on track. I long for the World Sim this semester because I find that I have very much difficulty provoking any sort of legitimate thinking and learning in the students without it. With the World Sim, every week we are dealing with the true complexities of culture and how the various parts relate and in some cases determine each other. I initially thought the value of the World Sim was the actual physical simulation at the end of the semester, rather the main value of the World Sim is the guide it gives to understanding the processes of culture on a weekly basis. It has a very large number of additional benefits which I hope will be elaborated on in future posts and comments, not to mention the many other unique and revolutionary approaches Dr. Wesch takes to make his classes the greatest possible. He is an absolute inspiration and I am truly honored to know him and be able to work with him.

  12. I was an undergraduate student in professor Wesch’s Intro to Cultural Anthropology last Fall semester. I was a junior at my time of enrollment and regarded his class, and still do, as the most effective course I had encountered. In a class of around 400 students the common tendency is to hit the snooze button and forget about the lecture at least a few times during the semester. Every person I talked to, however, said they felt personally obligated to wake up and be in their seats promptly at 8:30am before class began.
    I personally believe the ideas behind Wesch’s anti-teaching philosophy were the reason this worked. The students didn’t go to class for a grade, but instead for an experience….that lead to the persuit of another experience… that lead to another.. and another.
    Through the semester our challenge to produce our own culture and survive in our unique habitat allowed the definitions and concepts to really sink in. We developed subsistence patterns, elaborate migration routes (that we transposed onto the fictional map), musical instruments, art styles, religions, fictional gods, and of course a super cool handshake.
    From my point of view as a student in the middle of the World Sim everything was chaotic. Not disorganized by any means, but definately chaotic. We had to form alliances, trade routes, and fight wars (if invoked), and 399 other people were all wondering around the room trying to help their people survive just as I was.
    As the other student previously mention the class was a mixture of laughs and tears. This was especially present during the video constructed of our World Sim history. The tragedies faced during our simulation were well documented and then put together in a final review. Wesch then compared what we faced to actual dates and events that happened in the history of the “real” world, which was an effective exercise in expanding global empathy.
    So, basically As a participant of the simulation all I really wanted to say is, it works.

  13. I love the activity. I just wish we’d call it what it is: Good Teaching. Kids understanding? Asking good question? Maybe it doesn’t happen as much as we want it to, but let’s not call that the opposite of teaching. It does some really good teachers a disservice. I wrote more here.

  14. I love the multi-media effect. This simulation is an old Binford teaching mechanism. He used to give these intro exams where he would give the students biodiversity and then ask them to describe the culture. In the end, anthropology is the science of understanding human cultural diversity, so if we get good at learning we should be adept as describing what we have learned.

    Thanks a bunch for the post, it brought back good memories.

  15. I teach a course in logic and computer design. Getting students to ask good questions is a fine goal. Won’t teach them how to produce proofs though. Or do truth-tables. Or demonstrate logical equivalences by substitutions. And it won’t teach them how to build adders, registers, ALUs, or other basic components of digital circuitry. All this is not to disparage what Mike is doing. Afterall, I first decided on becoming an archaeologist in the sixth grade. My teacher divided our class into two. Each group made up in secret a culture. We then made artifacts which represented our culture. Then we buried the artifacts. Later that year each group dug up the other’s artifacts (out of the ground, with shovels), and then “studied” what we found and tried to figure out things about that “culture”. I’m sure it was very simple and silly in its way, but it had its impact.

  16. Pingback: Nomadic Learner
  17. In the 1960’s Buckminster Fuller proposed a “great logistics game” and “world peace game” (later shortened to simply, the “World Game”) that was intended to be a tool that would facilitate a comprehensive, anticipatory, design science approach to the problems of the world. The use of “world” in the title obviously refers to Fuller’s global perspective and his contention that we now need a systems approach that deals with the world as a whole, and not a piece meal approach that tackles our problems in what he called a “local focus hocus pocus” manner.

    Introduction to Buckminster Fuller’s World Game

  18. Interesting article.

    One thing bothers me in the beginning of it: “if you replace “Kansas” with your own state”. How come you only write for Americans? As someone working with anthropology you should know better…

  19. I started to know about your work through this Web 2.0 video on YouTube. I am teaching computing applied to translation in Spain (together with other translation subjects) and did not know how to focus a module which traditionally is quite dry and predictable: open this application, open “new project”, do this, do that… so that they learn the basic commands to translate with translation memories and computer-assisted translation software.
    When I was first assigned this module, I decided to do something different with it, something to actively involve students in the module in a way that would develop other skills apart from sheer software expertise. Learning by doing is my thing also: in this case they are supposed to learn how to translate with these programmes, therefore, I decided to make them translate indeed with the programmes (which surprisingly enough is not very frequent in other schools), not only learn commands. This would really make them think about how useful or unuseful these tools are and to critically use them (not all texts can be process in the same way, some texts are not suitable to be devided in chunks, words are interwoven and have to rich connotations to be trated as puzzle pieces, individually or in isolated sentences). Then I decided that “computing applied to translation” would go beyond computer-assisted translating. I decided they would need to be familiar with the Web 2.0 and how being critical Internet-literates would help them be real multi-lingual, multicultural information professionals.
    This is why I decided to start my module with your video. I am encouraging them to i.e. have their own blogs and feed the Wikipedia with new things. Students seem to be quite happy with the whole thing… it is not so thrilling as anthopology, but it is a start for such a predictable syllabus-based module. At the same time, we debate on the role of translators in a globalised world among other things and also on how a translator is THE internet citizen par excellence.

  20. I found this very intriguing, I as a college student currently in my second year. I would be much more interested in my classes and even going to class much less worried about grades and more focused on understanding the bigger picture and thinking abstractly. I would be pleased if any of these idea’s were ever implemented in my community college.

  21. I think your way of teaching is brilliant, it is a great way of allowing students to interact with one another. I attended a large University my freshman year and the classes were always large. And of course, in large classes, students never get one-on-one attention from the teacher. Though it would have been almost impossible to get one-on-one with 200 students, just doing interactive learning where the students asks questions would be a better way of teaching a large class. It is true when they say that in college you’re just another number. I was always scared to ask a question, because I feared being embarrassed by my teacher and scared of what other students would think of my question. Looking back, it has always been this way wherein the students just sit and listen to the teacher lecture and never ask questions. At the end the teacher asks, “Any questions, concerns, comments?” At the most three or four students out of a class of one-hundred fifty students would respond. It is very sad that after every class, a good majority of the students leave with questions unanswered. This happens because the teaching “system” is setup so that students sit like robots and intake all the information and then go home to do what the teacher says. Something is obviously wrong with this picture, students are not learning. So I can absolutely relate to Mike’s point of view on anti-teaching. We need more teachers or should I say anti-teachers like Mike.

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