[Joe Weinberg is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota in the Writing Studies department. He has has a Bachelor's degree from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a Masters degree in logic and philosophy from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and a Master's degree in English and Composition from Western Illinois University. He has a blog where he ruminates on his research (cogitas.wordpress.com).]

“I have terrible grammar.”

I have been teaching students how to write for about a decade now, and I have heard students say this hundreds of times. And I have yet to find one of them that actually means it, with the possible exception of ESL students. Not to say that all of my students have had perfect grammar; while that would be wonderful, it’s still a dream. What I mean is that they do have good grammar, they just don’t know it.

When I tried to figure out why that was, I decided to look back on my own life. I know it well, so that was pretty easy research. What do I think of when I hear the word “grammar”? The first things that come to my mind, and that seem to come to most students’ minds, are Nouns, Verbs, Gerunds, Prepositional Phrases, and Sentence Diagrams. And those are scary concepts.

I used to tell my students that I didn’t know grammar. I said that I had no idea what a Gerund even was, and I didn’t expect them to know either. I can’t say that anymore; enough people have corrected me and told me what a Gerund is that it finally locked in my memory. But the point was that while I did know grammar, I didn’t know the specific terminology.

That realization opened a door for me. Maybe everyone else already knew this, but I had to figure out that my students weren’t saying they had bad grammar, they were saying that they didn’t know the terminology of grammar. It was the word that scared them, not the concept. I tested this theory, telling them that I wanted them to be clear. I meant that I wanted them to be able to communicate what they wanted to say in a readable way. That, I think, is what we all mean when we say grammar.

Telling them I wanted clarity helped me with comments throughout the entire semester. I could underline a sentence and say that it was unclear, and they would fix the grammar.

Is it wrong to lie to students?

Some will argue that the student-teacher relationship is based on trust. Without trust, there is no learning. There is some truth to that. But there is also some truth in the idea that deception can teach more effectively, precisely because the students are trusting. They trust their teachers to be honest, and hence have a blind spot when that teacher is tricking them. This isn’t bad; it means they will learn better and more without realizing it. It’s a moral question. Kant’s categorical imperative makes this a definitively wrong thing to do. It is wrong to ever lie, so it is always wrong to lie. But Utilitarians, like Locke, say that the ends justify the means. That is, the greatest good for the greatest number is what’s important.

For myself, what matters is product not process—an odd fact, since I feel the opposite way when it comes to writing—what matters to me is that the students learn. I don’t much care what it takes to make them learn. Thus, deception. Or, more specifically, misdirection. Any good magician will tell you that misdirection is the most important part of their act; if they tell you otherwise, it’s because they’re trying to distract you.

There is a lot of commonality between magic and pedagogy. By pushing a student’s focus one way, they won’t notice that they’re learning something else. Playing games can be used to teach virtually anything. Scrabble teaches vocabulary and chess teaches mathematical thinking. Applying this to composition pedagogy takes a bit of finesse. It’s difficult for students to see writing as a game. But so long as they don’t know the purpose of the game, there are still ways this can be effective.

Take, for example, the idea of the story written in parts: one student writes an introduction, then the paper passes to the next student, who writes a second paragraph. This continues through the rest of the story. Students think it’s fun, think that maybe they’re supposed to be learning how to maintain a narrative. But really they’re learning to write transitions. Running a simulation where the students are pretending to run a company seems like a great way to learn how business works. But it also teaches them how to communicate in business settings.

[Image by Flickr user SMB College and used under Creative Commons License]

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10 Responses to Pedagogy of Deception: tricking students into learning

  1. I don’t know if I’d call this “deception” — isn’t clarity one of the real reasons we want “good grammar”? It seems like you were giving them a real rhetorical reason (being clear to their audience) to fix grammatical errors.

  2. Katy Meyers says:

    While I do agree that product is important, I actually think process is just as important. A student with a solid writing process will probably go further than one who develops a good product that fulfills the class. I think we should be trying to build scholars, not just students who can ace the system.

    However, I like the idea of gameifying the classroom and totally agree with implementing this in the classroom.

  3. Stephanie Hilliard says:

    I agree with you on the issue of knowing grammar vs. knowing terminology. I have the same problem.

    As far as trickery? I come from a psychological background. It is permissible to use deception in research if the situation requires it for the study. HOWEVER, it is considered unethical to end the research without debriefing the subject, including noting the deception and the reason for the use of deception. Given that, I would say that using games, or a group narrative is a great way to teach…with the caveat that you debrief the students at the end of the exercise.

  4. I am interested in this sentence: “I could underline a sentence and say that it was unclear, and they would fix the grammar.”

    This is not my experience as a educator at the community college level. My students often have absolutely no idea about how to structure a sentence. They have been socially promoted for years, so by the time they get to me at Comp-101, we have some pretty big problems. It’s hard to get people to write literary essays when they cannot write a single coherent sentence. Or when they do not understand the purpose of audience, that it is not, in fact, acceptable to use the abbreviations one might use while texting in formal papers. Or when they have never even heard of citation.

    As for me, I have to create a process because my students are not (initially) literate enough to independently create a solid product. You are fortunate to be teaching in a place where you have the luxury to “pretend” that you don’t know something. I have to tell you, I’m quite certain that your students don’t believe that you atall: a PhD candidate in Writing Studies Department knows his shizz when it comes to grammar. So it is really an “inside joke,” and not really a lie.

    It seems to me that what you are really doing is creating intimacy within your classroom. And that is something that all good teachers do.

  5. Alex Galarza says:

    So awesome to see people having a discussion from different teaching perspectives! Here is mine:

    I think the overlap between the deception/simulation we are discussing is a question of participation. In both cases, students feel as though they have an active role in moving the class along. As long as deception is closer to cheekiness and play rather than an elaborate lie that will jeopardize your students trust (which clearly your example is not), we should play more in the classroom and have the students move things forward.

  6. robert says:

    it is very possible to not know the technicality of grammar and have a ph.d. in writing studies. i know this because i speak of myself. from my perspective, as someone who has my degree in rhetoric and writing studies, professors are many times taking too simple of an approach to teaching composition courses. we certainly must teach some basic writing skills (including contexualized grammar) but we must show/teach our students that rhet/comp is much more than writing good sentences, organizing our thoughts, producing arguments, and analyzing literature. there is a vast amount of knowledge and theory in rhet/comp and we must treat composition courses as an introduction into our discpline.

  7. Timothy says:

    You and I, as friends and colleagues, have had this conversation before. And, since you made it public first, I’ll chime in with what I hope will be a means to further conversation;o)

    I believe that trust is important and I also believe that what Stephanie points to is important. But for those pedagogues, like myself, who have an eye to critical pedagogy and democratic discourses, the use of “deception” as a guiding term gives me pause.

    I am suspect because the language of deception, I’d argue, has implications for trust and intimacy (a point made previous). Namely, when I find out that you have deceived me, our relationship is damaged. You become a deceiver to me and though I may have actually learned content skills, I will distance myself from you as a person because I have also learned that you haven’t respected me enough to engage in a truthful dialogue about how I might learn. [Moreover, deception prevents me as a student from coming to my own ways of learning about content skills, but we can talk about that in another post should we want to.] When I deem you a deceiver, my relationship with you becomes based on a perception of power and authority that does damage to democratic education and engagement.

    I’m speaking in absolutes, but of course all that should be read with an implied “may.” And if we qualify this we are left with the choice to alienate students from who we are as citizens or teach them a content skill. The language of deception that you have advocated, therefore, implies a binary and if that binary is important, I choose democracy and affective development over skills almost every time.

    It’s the language of deception, not the activity you have outlined, that does not bode well for a pedagogy based on trust and mutual respect and democratic engagement. In fact, I think the activity of writing a story does more than teach transitions. It also teaches them to be close readers and understand the potential for collaboration (key elements to civic engagement, I’d say).

    So, rather than construct a pedagogy with “How might I productively deceive students?” I would suggest that we ask “How might we listen better to student needs in ways that pay respect to the discipline we have chosen to honor?”

    With that question in mind, when students are struggling with a skill they think they need to learn in order to “master writing” (my phrase, not any previous poster’s), then we can say something like the following:

    I hear that you are struggling with (skill set) and that seems to be blocking you from the writing (point to specific example of their own writing). Can you tell me what you think it means to have (skill set)?


    I have read your work and I am a bit confused at this point here (points to confusing part). Can you help me understand what you were trying to do here? (teacher listens to student.) (teacher speaks in disciplinary or teacher or student language.)

    What we have is a dialogue that allows students to come to learning about how their writing impacts a particular reader.

    Also, right on Robert!

    Be well,

  8. Timothy says:

    Right on, Robert, about contextualized grammar. I am not sure we should be limiting FYW in ways that function to introduce students to the disciplinary languages and methods of Writing Studies/Rhetoric and Composition. I believe, you are alluding to the Downs and Warddel (sp?) article in the CCC or CE a few years ago? I think it was them, correct me if I am wrong.

  9. Joe says:

    Thank you all for the comments! This has definitely suggested one important thing to me: I’m still not being clear enough.

    I’m not suggesting that you lie to your students. I’m suggesting that you lie WITH your students. The thing is, I don’t hide from my students that we are focusing on something other than what we’re really working on. It uses a deception, yes, but they are fully involved in that deception as participant rather than victim.

    You could ask why I bother calling it deception, then. My answer is simple: because the term is part of the project. It’s meant to be disrupting to the person reading it. It’s meant to elicit the response of “deception is bad!” so as to encourage a closer reading, and more of an involved argument.
    Because both of those things are teaching moments. ;)
    Essentially, what I’m proposing is misdirection, like a magician. When we go see a magician, we KNOW he isn’t really making things disappear/levitate/etc. But we play along, we allow ourselves to be deceived, because it amazes us. The misdirection works because we WANT it to. The same, I think, is true in the classroom. The deception works because the students are a part of it, and because they KNOW about it.
    I would call it “pedagogy of misdirection,”
    but that doesn’t have the same oomph.

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