Too many A+'s get UofO Professor kicked out of school
Thursday, February 12, 200916 Comments
Rancourt is an advocate of "critical pedagogy", developed by Paulo Freire, that has been called "radical" by some and has been dismissed outright by the UofO's administration. He is convinced that the assignment of grades is detrimental to the learning process of students. He calls grades a "carrot and stick" mechanism that "shape obedient employees" but do little to develop independent thinking and provide a deep understanding of the material. In a recent interview on this subject Rancourt said, "As soon as you make a student into a machine that is looking for higher grades, they are trying to guess what the professor wants rather than looking at the phenomenon, looking at the material in order to understand it themselves". When the UofO refused to allow Rancourt to use a pass/fail grading system in his class, he rebelled and gave everybody A's.
The heavy-handed dismissal of Rancourt and his teaching style has raised some serious questions about the very nature of our post-secondary "education" system. The administration has attacked Rancourt's method as damaging to the credibility of the university. The argument is that employers need to look at grades in order to see who has demonstrated adequate knowledge of a given subject. Rancourt sees this as demonstrating universities' real agenda: to provide employers with reasonably well trained workers. He argues that he has an obligation to "educate" and that the "certification and ranking of students can be handled by employers" through interviews, entrance tests, etc. He also points the fact that most employers only look to see if you have a degree and do not focus on marks and that several Ivy League schools now offer more pass/fail courses than standard graded classes.
Professor Rancourt promotes a deeper, humanist view of education that sees the university as a place where students can realize their creative potentials. He is highly critical of today's universities where "the natural desire to learn, the intrinsic motivation to want to learn something because you are interested in the thing itself, is destroyed".
Rancourt's views are definitely held by a small minority of professors but he is not totally alone in challenging the grading system. UofG Professor Emeritus John McMurtry had a comparable experience to Rancourt's and has written a letter expressing his solidarity. Thirty-five years ago McMurtry was almost ousted by the Guelph administration for challenging the grading system but was saved by fellow faculty members and students that defended him. McMurtry recently wrote that "It was a harrowing witch-hunt I experienced, but in the longer run the university got clear and good criteria for each grade category where before there were none, and pass-fail became an option in some courses". David Noble who is a professor at York University has also won ability to use the pass-fail evaluation method using a similar argument to Rancourt's.
This critique of our universities' pedagogy has resonance in the real experience of many students. Anyone that has forgotten everything they memorized just hours after their exam can relate to what Rancourt is saying on some level. Students worry about what the professor wants to see as opposed to what they would personally like to present or explore. Do we place enough emphasis on actual understanding and fulfilling the natural desires of students to learn about what interests them... or do we just need to regurgitate the semblance of knowledge to make the grade?