Winner Take All

David W. Mogk
Author Profile
published Sep 29, 2009

In 1993, Dr. Lani Guinier was nominated by President William Clinton to be the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. However, prior to her confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate, her nomination was withdrawn because of strong opposition by conservative factions that portrayed her as the "Quota Queen" based on her views about proportional representation. A biography (from of Dr. Guinier reports: Professor Guinier first came to public attention in 1993 when President Clinton nominated her to be the first black woman to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. She had been a civil rights attorney for more than ten years and had served in the Civil Rights Division during the Carter Administration as special assistant to then Assistant Attorney General Drew S. Days. Immediately after her name was put forward in 1993, conservatives virulently attacked Guinier's views on democracy and voting, driving Clinton to withdraw her nomination without a confirmation hearing. She never got to testify on her own behalf. In response, she wrote The Tyranny of the Majority (1994, Free Press). At the risk of oversimplifying her arguments, the basis is that "winner take all" in political elections is neither fair nor an effective way to run a government, and that minorities should have the opportunity to be represented, their voices heard, and to have their needs addressed at least some of the time.

What does The Tyranny of the Majority have to do with the "state" of geoscience education? The politics of the classroom, like the politics of the nation and community, are all about authority (the instructor's), inclusion (or not) of students in all aspects of class activities, and the opportunity (of students) to participate, contribute, express ideas, and ultimately to succeed in the class/political arena. This singular volume has had the greatest impact on my own teaching philosophy and instructional practice. After reading The Tyranny of the Majority it soon occurred to me that if I only use one mode of instruction in my classes, I will realistically only be reaching students who think and act very much like me; if I use only one method of assessment, that only one small population of students will be predisposed to succeed. A monolithic style of instruction and assessment is neither fair nor effective in the classroom.

Consequently, I've consciously made a number of changes to my classroom practice:

  • I use the VARK (visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic) survey as an introductory exercise in many of my classes to get a sense of the preferred learning styles of my students. This allows me to make sure that I use teaching activities are aligned with preferred learning styles of the class.
  • I also use a series of short writing assignments and short interviews with students to get a sense of their backgrounds, experiences, motivations, professional goals, and concerns/anxieties. There are many external influences that affect students' ability to learn; by addressing these directly it is possible to lower barriers to learning. See related resources on Teaching in the Affective Domain.
  • Most importantly, I try to vary the type of class activities that are used throughout the class: collaborative and cooperative learning is generally encouraged, but at times individual outcomes and reflections are required; alternately, some assignments require reading the literature and writing an analysis, other assignments are designed to use quantitative skills, others rely heavily on visualizations and their interpretation, other assignments require physical (kinesthetic) mastery of skills. Assessments may be focused on evidence of mastery of specific content knowledge or concepts (lower-order thinking skills), but other exercises may focus on comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (see Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Skills). I'm also interested in assessing and rewarding the process of problem solving, as well as the ultimate learning products.

By varying the methods of instruction and assessment throughout a course:

  • All students have a chance to optimize use of their preferred learning styles at least some of the time in the assigned class activities. This allows students to periodically assume a leadership role in the class, and to develop their self-confidence.
  • All students are exposed to a diversity of learning strategies; this does not require that all students will master all learning styles. But the benefits and limitations of the various approaches can be demonstrated and practiced.
  • Reflection on multiple strategies used to solve problems is encouraged, helping students to be self-aware and purposeful learners (see related resources on Teaching Metacognition:

Using instructional approaches that emphasize different learning styles is an affirmation that diversity in the classroom is an opportunity, not an obstacle. All students should be given the opportunity to excel by providing opportunities for them to (periodically) play to their strengths, and all students should be cognizant of and respect multiple approaches to solving problems. All students have something to offer, and all have much to learn, by engaging a variety of learning strategies in our classrooms.

Comment? Start the discussion about Winner Take All