As a former student of Denis’ and as a former science student, I really appreciated the teaching methods that Denis brought to his class and to the university. Challenging students on their beliefs, making general science relevant to realities of today instead of purely theoretical. Those are things that I value in a classroom.
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Contrary to what a lot of people have been saying, Denis has never been about giving anyone a free pass. Denis has constantly encouraged students to follow through on their own interests, to explore things, to work hard and to make it relevant in their daily lives. By constantly challenging a students beliefs he helps them develop their ideas, argumentation and research skills. In this context, given that examination isn’t a stress factor in Denis’ classes, students aren’t expected to think like him to answer correctly on an exam in order to get good grades. This changes enormously the interactions between teacher and student and liberates many constraints to genuine and wholesome learning.
In today’s classroom too much is based on memorizing and learning theory, not enough on ethics, on how it applies in our daily lives, the impact research or scientific knowledge can have on society, politics, war, etc.
Grade based evaluation is mostly based on if you remember what a teacher thought you in the classroom, on reading what the teacher told you to read and on what the teachers perception of a student understanding concepts and remembering facts. From personal experience and common say, students will forget most of the facts they remembered for a given examination the hour after the exam. Techniques and formulas will remain imprinted, but the practical aspects of a given topic often won’t be remembered because of the external pressures that are exams and grades. Students are pressed with time and pressed to obtain high grades. Therefore they aim to perform well on exams as efficiently as possible. This kind of behaviour is definitely not conducive to learning.
To those that say that you need grades to maintain a standard, I say not so. In my opinion and experience you retain and learn much more, technical and practical knowledge, than you do in most other types of classes. And if someone doesn’t want to learn? They won’t retain much in the current system either.
Denis’ methods aren’t all that revolutionary. Major universities around the world have many classes where no grades are given. Many classes, even at the University of Ottawa, turn away from conventional evaluation and teaching methods to either more project based, to taking away grades, to group discussions. Many classes at the University of Ottawa have up to 30% or more of a mark attributed to class participation to try and increase the participation and interest because it is something that is lacking in a lot of classrooms. University of Ottawa Medical school moves away from standard evaluation and teaching methods, yet it still manages to achieve very high standards, by more practical and problem-based approaches. Hampshire college in the U.S. is completely gradeless.
By switching the objectives from performance to education. During my degree I stopped focusing on getting high grades and focused on projects I appreciated more. Hence, when classes presented projects that had more practical approaches I performed better because I enjoyed them much more.
For me, it comes down to differences in teaching methods. Denis’ methods are quite relevant in todays context and as a professor his choices are reasonable and within his rights. The current dominant methods, continued from high schools, don’t suit everyone, that much is obvious. And those that it suits, might not find that Denis’ methods suit them. But this does not mean that his methods are less relevant and don’t work.
In the end, Denis’ dismissal and opposition to Denis is more so related to diverging political beliefs that clash. Denis has been a strong critic of the upper administration and of general teaching methods, and relevance of research and teaching to the real world. The fact that the University of Ottawa administration can get away with firing someone for his teaching methods, when all over Canada and the U.S., and probably elsewhere, these kinds of teaching methods are often implemented and accepted by university professors, illustrates some problems with the university administration structure, the power they hold and the way decisions are made.
I think the discontent with his actions and the firing stem from the fact that people don’t agree with him and don’t like him criticizing and CHALLENGING them. And they choose to officially fire him for giving out grades arbitrarily. Even at the university level, nothing should be accepted as the status quo. Constantly challenging ones beliefs is important, even for University Presidents and tenured professors. If you can’t accept to be challenged and disagreed with, then you don’t belong in an educational institution such as the university.
B.Sc. Environmental Science