Hey Teacher! Give those Kids a Different Role.

Gold stars, sweets from the teacher’s candy jar, and “Proud Parent of an Honor Roll Student” bumper stickers are the favored instruments of an education system that induces passivity, punishes non-conformity, and prepares students for a life of pleasing the gatekeepers.

Most of us were subjected to this system right out of diapers. As products of this system, most of us subject our children to this system without reflection. What kinds of behavior does this system condition it members to exhibit?

  • Sit quietly at their desks
  • Color within the lines
  • Take copious notes during class
  • Nod one’s head in approval whenever the teacher speaks
  • Circle their answers on the exam

While some of these behaviors are admirable, as a whole this system is failing to prepare our students for the future.

In some ways I perpetuate this system at the collegiate level.

For example, this past week I reviewed my grade sheets and awarded the “Armchair Economist” and “Douglass C North” award to the students who earned the highest final grade in my Principles of Microeconomics and Economic Development classes, respectively. It’s an annual exercise.

Sounds like a good idea. Not really.

Yes, it takes patience, determination, and perseverance to accomplish this feat. And, yes, I have had a number of kick-ass students sweep up these awards and go on to make a ruckus. However, I have also had my share of winners paralyzed by perfectionism.

With these awards, I am telling my students that success, excellence, and distinction are achieved by those who are able to best prepare for and complete my assignments.

Now, that’s not really true.

In the classes where my students and I are doing the best work, where we are making a mark on the world and transforming each other in the process, there are no awards. Indeed, most of the students in these classes did not win either award. Most had no interest in them. I suspect that most, recognizing these awards for what they are, had a good laugh.

Why?

These students see their roles in educational process a bit differently. They are co-creators of knowledge.

Now, getting all of my students to embrace this role is not easy. Some fight me tooth and nail. Others come along kicking and screaming. They want the road map. After years of conditioning, I get it.

And, like I said, I have contributed to this mindset by giving out those awards.

So, where do I start to reverse what I think is fair to characterize as a crisis in our education system?

I think it starts by not giving awards to those who earn the highest grade. Okay. So, if I stop that,  then what behavior should earn an award? The most improved student?  The student with perfect attendance? Or, the student who always participates?

No.

By rewarding these behaviors, I am still saying that if you jump through my hoops, play by my rules, and pass my trials then you will succeed.

No.

Students who are co-creators of knowledge do the following things:

  • Display vulnerability
  • Fail, get back up, and charge back in
  • Fear something and go do it anyway
  • Offer an opposing viewpoint
  • Find a better way to do things than the way I proposed
  • Join me in the “I don’t know” space and lead

Is there a gold star, piece of candy or bumper sticker that can motivate those behaviors?

Not on their own.

Re-defining the role of students in the educational process will require us educators to re-imagine our role in the classroom. We can no longer occupy the center. We can no longer act as the sole font of expertise and wisdom.  We have to learn to lead from the sidelines.

I’m still trying to figure out how to do this. But, I know one thing. It is going to take some humility.

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)

Image Courtesy of J. Yung

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