I recently had a strange interaction with my students.
I was teaching the second of a department-required, two-semester course series on design in a class where all sixteen of my students were majoring in communication—many of whom were about to graduate in a few months.
In my original syllabus, I had developed a final project for my students, a project that required them to build a branding identity for a small business. While working with clients on projects like that can take unique twists and turns, the assignment description itself was rather prescriptive: students would have to create a branding suite (logo, business card, letter head, etc.), marketing collateral (like advertisements and press releases) and a style guide and they would have to develop a rationale paper and presentation that walked their clients through their decisions (they would, in other words, have to persuade me and their clients that they made appropriate design choices).
But I opted not to do that project.
Rather, I approached my class with an idea: what if they developed their own final project? What if they determined who their client was, what was important to them and their clients, what their own assessment method (which is a fancy way of saying grading or scoring rubrics) should be? And what if they, instead of me, evaluated what was really important in their work? This was, after all, a final project of a two-semester course. And these were college juniors and seniors preparing to enter the life beyond. Surely, students would jump at the opportunity to develop a project of their own, determine their own deliverables, and decide how to evaluate what was really valuable and high quality, right?
As I proposed this to my students, I received a room full of blank stares. And shortly thereafter, a room full of hostility.
In class where I had grown quite close to my students and we always shared an environment of respect and engagement and passion for learning, suddenly they were turning on me. While a few loved the idea of creative freedom, the vast majority fought it. They were incredibly (and surprisingly) resistant to the idea of creating their own project. And they flat hated the idea of determining how to assess their work. That was my job!
At one point, a student couldn’t take it anymore and blurted out her unreserved emotion: “This is stupid! I don’t get why we’re wasting so much time developing our own project when we could be spending time working on it!” A collective sigh of agreement (and discomfort, considering a student had just told their professor, out loud, that his idea was stupid) filled the air and eyes were glued on mine.
So I took a deep breath and looked at them intently. “So you really just want me to tell you what to do?”
“Yes!” a couple students in the back muttered. “That’s your job.”
I let the awkward silence sit for a minute as both I and my students pondered what was happening here. If they truly believed that it was my job to tell them what to do and how to do it, then what was their responsibility? To follow instructions? To act as cogs in a machine, to fit the mold, to plug in holes where their teachers gave them deliberate and explicit vacancies?
“How are you ever going to learn to be creative if you’re always told what to do? How will you ever be able to think critically if I do the thinking for you?”
The conversation improved dramatically after that. And, when the course ended, I’ve never received so much enthusiasm for a project with so much flexibility and ambiguity. My teaching evaluations soared. My students produced amazing work, far beyond what I would have required of them on my own. Why? Because students weren’t boxed into a model that keeps them stuck within a framework of rights and wrongs. They were given the opportunity to think—and with that came amazing results.
This experience has made me think. Why would students come to a classroom with the mindset that teachers should tell them what to do in the first place? What is training them to believe that education is about being taught, rather than about learning?
Much of it has to do with the systemization of education. As a society (largely through government and corporate initiatives), we teach our kids to pass tests, not to engage with information. We preach to our students that their GPA is more important than their progress. We almost entirely remove the process from learning and focus on outputting content—in other words, it isn’t about all the intangibles that were learned along the way, it’s about regurgitating formulas and vocabularies and systems. I’m convinced that, over the last 100 years (and especially the last 20), we have become so focused on scores and grades that we have lost sight on our own ability to think.
I’m often flabbergasted how many students think that there is a right way and a wrong way to complex problems. There is, in many of their minds, nothing in between. Students will come to me and say, “how do I do this.” And it kills them when I tell them, “it depends.”
In my design courses, I’ve discovered that students don’t really want to learn about how to approach design problems and complex solutions. They tend to want to know which button to push in InDesign or Photoshop. A year ago, I was asked to teach a web design course. I showed students the fundamentals of working in HTML and Dreamweaver, but then told them that we would spend the semester learning how to approach web design. They would have to learn the perfunctory task of building the site through collaboration and self-learning. In class, however, we would learn the complexities of usability, accessibility, and user experience design through trial and error and through experience. We would learn as a class, in other words, how to solve complex problems and develop solutions for them. We would learn as a class the things that actually matter to the human beings that use websites. After all, technology changes so fast, what good is it really to spend class time learning software that will disappear in a few years? Shouldn’t we be spending time on learning creativity, adaptability, critical analysis, forethought, collaboration, and shared knowledge? Telling a student how to use Dreamweaver doesn’t do any of that.
Students certainly don’t think so. Some were flat out angry that we didn’t spend more time in class poking at the toolbars and constructing templates. I got awful teaching evaluations that semester, probably the worst I’ve ever received. And that makes me, at times, want to conform to their expectations. But I’m resisting.
I have to keep asking myself: do students really need to spend thousands of dollars (the cost of a college course at my institution) to have someone tell you how to learn Dreamweaver? You can buy a book on Amazon for thirty bucks that will tell you that. College shouldn’t be about dumping a load of content into students brains—they have the ability (but perhaps not always the willpower) to do that on their own.
As educators, it seems, regardless of discipline, we have an obligation to pull back on our knee-jerk reaction to pour out content and “teach” our students. Rather, we need to present them with problems, let them seek out their own information and content, and guide them along the way. The more we simply give them, the less they think on their own. And the less creative and adaptable they become. We’re so worried about our students’ ability to receive information, that they often leave college not knowing where to find it. Is that really providing them with a service?