Monday, August 22, 2011

The pitfalls of self-interest

I appreciate self-reflection.  I encourage students to it.  I try to do it.  You know..."unexamined life" and all that.

But it matters what material we use for that reflection.  That's why I'm a bit concerned about the latest advice I read in EdWeek--the closest thing I know to the journal for the teaching profession.

In this article on 5 questions that will improve your teaching, we are given a list of queries that reify the student-centered approach to teaching.  And there's the problem....Student-centeredness can (and has, in this case) get a little off balance.  To put it briefly--and perhaps mildly--we teachers are encouraged to be student-centered, and students, already inclined this way anyway, are encouraged to be self-centered.  

It requires a careful balancing act for a teacher to be student-centered and require that students be other-centered.  This balancing is not strengthened by self-reflection questions like "is what I am doing--in the class room--going to connect to the students' self-interest?"  (Question #2)

Problems arise here...on many levels.

First, it assumes that education and students' self-interest can be aligned.  Perhaps they can, in some degree or in a particular moment or situation.  But education has an inescapable element of the long-term in it.  You keep doing math problems or conjugating Spanish verbs because it's somehow good for you in some vague future.  But children's--especially teenagers'--apprehension of the future consequence of current behavior is notoriously bad.  The part of the brain that processes that kind of long-term abstraction doesn't develop fully until the late teen years.

Second, an effort to connect to students' self-interest risks elevating their fancy above other values.  My teenage son is anxious for school to start again...for "the social activity, not the academics," he notes.  It would be in his interest--or at least his desire--if all his academic work could somehow be rendered by texting, and delivered somehow by way of iTunes.

Third, observing one and two reveals the danger of confusing students' interests and desires.  Education has always been characterized by the strain inherent in the idea that adults understand a young person's long-term interests better than the young person.  Why else would I have been compelled to endure so much math?  As students get older they come to assert their own interests and desires, thereby making the teenage years quite frustrating for parent and child alike.

Ultimately, the youngster's burgeoning expression of his/her own desires (which still tend to be short-run) collide with the adult (parent, teacher, "society") perception of the longer term requirements--not yet apprehended by the youngster, or apprehended differently by youngsters and adults.  What else would be the source of the long-standing, never-resolved plaint, "Why do I have to do this math?  I'll never use it."  Has an adult ever answered this in a way that a youngster embraced?  

But we're encouraged now to think about students' self-interest.  Not just their interest, but their self-interest.  Ponder the difference.  If nothing else, the adults' pursuit of the students' self-interest makes nonsense of the completely understandable but ultimately unsatisfactory parental line, "It's for your own good."  

I understand connecting to students' interests.  I understand connecting to their desires.  Some of the time.  I also understand that their self-interests are just that...SELF-interest.  And I understand better than they do how certain reading and writing exercises will be helpful for some or most of them.  

I also understand that if they knew some of the things I know about certain likelihoods in their lives, they might render their self-interests a little differently.  

If this tension ever goes away, it's because we won't be engaged in anything called education anymore.

Just after posting this, I read an article about students dropping out in NY.  One way by which students can drop out is for the student, parents, teachers, counselors and principal to meet together, at which time the parents can "sign out" the student.

The article's author wrote this line, "School administrators and staff do their best to talk them out of this because they know it can have long term effects on the teenager" (my emphasis).

Does the teenager NOT know this?  Does the teenager know it and not care?  Know and choose in favor of the short-run?  Or, possibly, are the school staff wrong?


Anonymous said...

When does the student and parent get a say in what is the most likely to engender maturity? That is as important as education and is not necessarily encouraged by "school". Most teen TV and movies are based on kids pranking and torturing adults by out smarting them or trapping them in someway or another.

Kids need to see that work is hard and pushing a broom is boring before they will believe that it is better to qualify for the option of working for the harbor department as a manager than as a boat hand. Some parents, believe-it-or-not have no money for alternative education and know that taking their son to work for them for their gardening company will teach them more skills and maturity than another day of hanging out with their misguided friends. Why should that wise family not have the benefit of the teen driving?

What we need is a way for 28 and 30 year olds to go back to school and finish once they are more mature.

At these troubled economic times it is time for a major paradigm shift in education. We are wasting enormous amounts of money on classes in high school and college for immature kids who need to learn a work ethic.

Linda NBCT science

Andrew Milton said...

Interesting...wait to finish education after some life experience.
Everybody do some public service for a year or two in their late teens?