Untraining Helplessness: Questions that burn in students’ souls, communication tools, and working to undo the training for helplessness that we have fostered
At the beginning of the semester, in both my classes, I had students watch anthropologist Michael Wesch’s TEDx talk, The End of Wonder. In it, he reflects on his five-year-old son’s—Wilson’s—sense of wonder about the world, his deep curiosity, his absolute enchantment with learning about how things work. In contrast, by the time he gets his students in college, when he asks if they have any questions, they produce such pressing issues as “Is this on the test?” and “How many points is that?”
Those, he says regretfully, seem to be the questions that burn in his students’ souls.
We have trained students to fixate on the mechanics, the tasks.
They have learned, through their years of school, that that’s what school is about: figuring out the arbitrary and arcane details of each teacher’s artificial universe, and meeting them.
School is a game; it has artificial and confusing rules. The teacher is the rule-setter, and students turn to her, the ultimate judge, to get clarification.
That, of course, is what email is for. Or so it seems from my students’ early-semester communication.
For a number of reasons, including 1) the sense that I want my classes to connect out to the world, and 2) the insight that by shaping communication I am also shaping experience, 3) the linguistic anthropological research showing multimodal forms of interaction all have consequences, and 4) that I want my students to learn independence, I have tried hard to select forms of interaction and communication that accomplish the following:
To do that, for instance, I stop having students raise their hands to speak. In real-world interactions, we have to figure out who gets the floor. (That’s one of our research topics in the linguistic anthropology class, coming up in a few weeks.) Sometimes a couple will begin together. Has that ever happened to you in your real life? Of course!
Hand raising was invented by Pietists, adopted by Prussians, as a way of enforcing discipline and hierarchy. That is not an endorsement.
I also have students stop addressing only me when they speak. They have been trained to think of all of school as doing whatever the teacher/professor asks. But what if they actually had something they wanted to say to people, not just to jump because we say jump?
In my linguistic anthropology class, I begin every class with students bringing in something they have, independently, discovered IRL. [Look it up, if you don’t know what this means.] They become the expert. Students look at them.
Simultaneously, a pair of students is quickly looking through the “Daily Cards” containing questions about the reading that every student is supposed to write before coming to class. The “Daily Card Team” will select the questions we’ll discuss. Some pick “better”—to me—questions than others. But this makes the students try to write good questions that will be picked, not just anything, to fulfill the assignment.
And we begin class with the students’ interests, within a structure I’ve constructed.
And for communication, I have selected an app called Slack. Yes, it’s a Silicon Valley tool for business, but it is a real-world tool, something outside the universe of Blackboard or Sakai or Moodle or Canvas--all “Learning Management Systems.” It looks good, works great on phones, has a playfulness about it.
And, when it works right, once students get used to it, it fosters student-to-student questions about the urgent but not burning questions: “Where is the reading?” and “When is that interview due?”
It is the second week of classes now, and the students haven’t learned this yet.
I’ve gotten the same questions from several students, first by email and then by direct message, and then I’ve directed them to the “logistics channel” where I’ve already answered it for everyone. Eventually, this group, too, like past groups, will feel permission to answer each other’s questions, and maybe, just maybe, I will get some other questions. Maybe burning questions about the nature of life, or the ways our actions make us who we are.
It’s a new semester, beginning with the daunting task of untraining my successful students’ helplessness, and trying to let them feel the power of the floor, the power to ask a genuine question, and a release from the game of trivia that they have mastered with such earnestness, and with such problematic effects.