Teach Wise: Natural Law and Engagement

CC Max Braun

We’ve all been there. Professor in the front, students sitting passively in seats arranged auditorium style. The sage on the stage (hmm, when he turns that way, he looks kind of like me) drones on following a neat little rabbit trail he just discovered. A few students are taking notes, some are doodling, others are reading for other classes, or a novel, or the news. Laptops are tuned in to Facebook. A young lady in the front asks, “Will this be on the test?” Most ears in the room perk up for a second, checking in to see if the response makes what’s being said valuable enough to shift more attention to this present time and place. What’s wrong with this scene?

Some would say “The prof is wrong, he should be using active learning pedagogy.”

Many of us have been there. We decide to go from Sage on Stage to Professor Facilitator. We shelved our lecture notes (considered trashing, them but then thought twice), spent weeks curating information from the web, wrote a syllabus that laid out each day’s reading in light of a really cool question. We walked into class and scrawled the really cool question on the board, turned to the class and said, “OK, let’s discuss this.” The students stared back blankly. After a week of really uncomfortable classes, we pulled the lecture notes off the shelf, breathed a prayer of thanks that we had not trashed them and then, according to research reported by Stephen Gilbert on his TLT-SWG blog post entitled “Student’s Prefer Anonymous Passivity to Engagement?”, we gave our students what they wanted.

Yes, we did. Adam Smith articulated this law over two hundred years ago. Basically he said, smart people seek to discover how they can get the most benefit through the least amount of effort. Students are people and most of them are smart enough to align themselves to this natural law instinctively. This means that faced with discovering and processing information (mostly free and easily available) for themselves or sitting quietly in a room and allowing the teacher to spoon feed them pre-processed information just in time for the test (itself designed to elicit regurgitation of the professionally pre-processed information), they will tend to opt for passive listening.

In line with Smith’s articulation of economic natural law, the wisdom of human experience, refined to a high state over the past few millennia of civilization, teaches us that when faced with an overwhelming task and given the choice to go it alone or pool resources and skills to tackle it collectively, most humans will collaborate. We have found that collaboration leverages many more resources and skills than are individually available, accomplishes the task utilizing less individual effort, and significantly reduces the risk of catastrophic failure.

So, whereas the active instructor passive student model gives students what they want in the moment, it fails to teach them what they will need to survive in the 21st century. They will need the ability to tackle big projects as a team and work together to get it done creatively.

If we listen to Gilbert, Smith, and others, we instructors need to

1) ensure that we set the challenge in a way that rewards collaboration (big enough that it’s impossible to do alone),

2) provide students with a measure of autonomy regarding how they will contribute to the success of the project, and

3) realize that they are still learning these skills (as we are) and that failure is to be expected. In a learning environment, failure exists as opportunity provided that their is opportunity to recover from it, reflect on it, and try again,

4) keep trying. To have the grit to keep trying and working through the problems is what academia, and perhaps life itself is all about. Be a role model for your students.

I’m curious to hear about your stories of trying something new and different, failing at it, and learning from it. Feel free to tell about it in the comments.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Bought A Natural Law And The Two

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