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19 May 2014

There was a conversation today on twitter that I briefly and unproductively contributed to. I say unproductively because I was making points I hadn’t really thought through and don’t really feel passionately about. So when others countered them, I folded up and shut up. I didn’t really know what I’m talking about. The conversation was about teaching class and whether students should use laptops and phones and such. I generally say no. I think writing notes is the better way to go.

To which @namnezia replied:

 It’s a good point (and a wide-ranging conversation worth reading) and one I don’t really have an answer for except that, it’s important to learn do do things someone else’s way in life. Coddling students with extra time and “whatever works for you” and teaching them that they’re all special snowflakes is, I think, doing them a grand disservice if it isn’t balanced by a hefty dose of, “You have to be willing not to get your way a lot of the time. You have to be willing to take instruction. You have to be willing to fit in to a system before you can change a system.”

I find myself thinking of this in the context of sobriety. We alcoholics tend to enter the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous suffering from monstrous distortions of ego. Heroic and brilliant (in our own minds) one moment, abased and worthless (again) the next. As long as we cannot control the riot of this ego, we find it very difficult to recover. Recovery from alcoholism requires, in my experience, a willingness to listen to people who know more than you, and do things that they did. To do them the way they did them.

It’s not so important exactly how one does the steps, I think. There are definitely more and less thorough and effective attempts, but the actual process isn’t so important. It doesn’t matter that you write or not for every step. It doesn’t matter if we do our fifth step with your sponsor or someone else who is on board with the program. It doesn’t matter if we pray the particular prayers of each step. I know sober – happily, strongly sober – people who did all these things differently.

What’s important is that we do the steps the way someone else leads you through them. We submit to someone else’s greater understanding and guidance. We do what we’re told, even when we think it isn’t the best way. Because we need to rely on things outside ourselves to recover. We don’t have the strength, the fortitude, the guts, to get ourselves sober. Because being sober doesn’t require guts or fortitude or strength. It requires surrender and willingness. We need to understand that we can’t fight. We can’t battle. Addiction always wins. We relent, and let go, and the rage and fear and shame dissipate.

Most students will be going on to get jobs in institutions and corporations. They will have bosses and rules and requirements. Usually that are not open to discussion. Each of these young professionals will believe they have a better way to do things. That’s human nature. We all believe we can improve our surroundings. And most of us are probably right. But systems can’t allow everyone to make their own changes to procedure and protocol. Because then standardization and process suffer, and products fail. In medicine, and engineering, and research, that can mean people die.

We all have to learn to do things someone else’s way. We can battle and fight and struggle. We will, usually, end up making only ourselves unhappy. Or we will be excluded from our choice of career or activity. Once we have demonstrated that we can participate in a system as it is effectively, then we can usually ascend to a position where we can have some influence upon how a system evolves.

But what we learn is often less important than how we learn it. And learning to do it someone else’s way can be a critical path to success. Always taking our own road, in my experience, leads to oblivion for the vast majority.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 May 2014 11:12

    That’s a completely different thing. Letting students take notes on laptops even if you think paper is better is ignoring the fact that everyone has different styles of learning and assimilating information. This is not coddling, but providing them with a wide range of tools to choose from so that they can become better at learning to learn. To assume that YOUR way is better because that’s what works for YOU shows a lot of hubris on your part. I learn as much from my students as they (hopefully) do from me, and part of forming a learning community is learning to live and accept each other’s styles and differences. This is not the same as coddling the students, nor is it lowering expectations.

    • 19 May 2014 11:39

      I’m not trying to assume my way is better. I’m saying, even if my way is *worse* for some students with respect to mastering that material in that class, having to learn someone else’s way has value in an entirely separate sense.

      But I’ll concede that allowing students to learn however they do best is not an example of coddling.

  2. 19 May 2014 12:09

    Screw that. Students don’t know what’s best for themselves. Neither do profs. That’s why we STUDY this stuff. As it happens, there is *data* on this. And paper notes result in more retention ( Though it should also be noted that if you are lecturing to your STEM students, you can’t tell them to take notes on paper BECAUSE it works better without being a stinking hypocrite. Because lectures don’t work either.

    Discuss. Take notes on paper. That’s the way to master material. This shouldn’t be that tricky, except it is a lot of WORK for both the students and the profs.

    Education systems NEED changing. And I’m not going to look to most academics (who excelled in the system-as-is) or former alcoholics (who have, blessedly, finally found their hammer and think everything might be more nailish than others seem to realize) to find out how to change that system. Science is how we build knowledge, not simply listening to authority. Authority can go do anatomically probable things to itself.

    • 19 May 2014 12:19

      Wow. OK, first, aggregated results say very little about individual performance, and therefore your link isn’t really relevant. “Most do better” doesn’t say anything about this or that student in an actual classroom.

      And second, well, my experience is my experience, and bringing to to bear on a topic has absolutely no implication that I think other people did or didn’t “realize” it was relevant.

      Finally, I am totally baffled by why you think you need to lead off with hostility and viciousness, especially here. It tells me a lot about what you think of yourself. But it doesn’t tell me much about me or my arguments.

    • 19 May 2014 12:25

      I think students are pretty good at determining for themselves what works for them and what doesn’t.

      • 19 May 2014 14:18

        I dunno… I’d agree that the top ~10% of students are good at this, and tend to figure it out pretty early on and stay successful because they’ve figured it out. But there’s a huge population around the B-C-scale GPA range who are floundering and not doing as well as they could be because they HAVEN’T figured this out. I think that teaching them strategies (such as handwritten note-taking) that research shows have a chance to help them be more successful is part of my job. If they sincerely and actively try it and it still doesn’t work for them, so be it, but if I don’t introduce them to it, they might never know to try.

        For context, I teach large-enrollment organic chemistry for biomed/pre-pharm majors in their 1st or 2nd undergraduate year (we start organic the 2nd semester of 1st year) at a large public MRI, with at least 250 students per class. I’ve now taught it six times, so that’s more than 1500 students total, which makes a pretty good sample size from which to evaluate the average native skillset. I’ve done research on these students and their use of online homework systems and outcomes, and it definitely indicates that the large majority of them don’t know how to study, but that those who figure it out do well. So I guess I do think it’s my responsibility and duty to help them know what activities and methods are most likely to help them succeed at learning.

    • 19 May 2014 12:26

      And of course, I was deliberately placing this in the context of material retention perhaps being less important than other types of learning. Therefore, your link is completely irrelevant to my point.

      • 19 May 2014 13:20

        I find it hard to believe that you actually think this. So if you were a classroom professor, would you straight up put on the syllabus, “in this class, you will first and foremost indirectly learn a valuable life lesson about doing what other people tell you to do. In addition, you may also learn a little about the topic of the course.”

      • 19 May 2014 13:26

        I think that for many undergrads, and even grads, *what* we learn is less important than learning *to* learn.

        However, that said, I think you’re interpreting it with a different emphasis that I intended. Of course the class would be about the material. But often, the most important lesson in a class isn’t the details. It’s the big picture.

      • 19 May 2014 13:28

        But for the sake of this argument, I was stipulating that I might be ignoring the student’s preferred learning style, and that I’m ok with that.

  3. Aimee permalink
    19 May 2014 12:31

    But it would be a poor teacher – and a poor sponsor – who failed to notice or respect that their way was manifestly not working for a person who was trying their hardest. And it would be a rigid idealogue (or a person with no imagination) who refused ( or was unable) to modify the program for the benefit of the student or sponsee.

    • Aimee permalink
      19 May 2014 12:32

      And please modify the above comment to read “teacher” and “ideologue.”

    • 19 May 2014 12:32

      Within bounds, sure. Or at least to say, “I’m not the right sponsor for you.”

  4. theLaplaceDemon permalink
    19 May 2014 16:48

    N=1 as someone who was a college student in the sciences just a few short years ago:

    Hand writing notes can be VERY difficult with the way some professors teach. They simply go through material way to fast for me to either (a) write down everything they say, or (b) think about what they are saying enough to decide if it’s something I should write down. This was especially true in biology classes. (Chemistry and math involved a lot more of the teacher writing/drawing on the board, which slowed them down enough that I could actually take notes).

    If lecture professors insist on making students hand write notes, they absolutely must make sure they are going slowly enough for the students to keep up.

  5. Dee permalink
    19 May 2014 19:38

    In classes that were content heavy and required note taking I’ve come to realize (in grad school) that providing slides before hand so that students can make notes on those is very helpful. Not everyone will be able to write every important detail in a lecture down but having the important things in hand and adding to that as the lecture progresses has value.

  6. 20 May 2014 09:01

    This “submission” shittio is wack in a pedagogical context. Maybe it makes sense for completely out-of-control alcoholics who have lost all ability to judge themselves and others. I wouldn’t know anything about that.

    I don’t want my students and other trainees to “submit” to my wisdom. What I want them to do is *trust* me *and themselves* enough to give my ideas a try, and see if they work for them. Maybe this is some kind of AA semantics dealio, but based on what you have posted in the past, it seems like the AA dealio is that the alcoholic is completely untrustworthy in all respects and thus must completely give himself over to others. Again, maybe this makes sense for completely out-of-control alcoholics, but I don’t think it is a useful framework for ordinary pedagogical contexts.

    • 20 May 2014 09:04

      I never meant to suggest a complete submission is appropriate in the classroom. It is absolutely not! Merely that it is valuable for us all to learn how to do things someone else’s way.

  7. 20 May 2014 14:08

    ..You wrote: “You have to be willing to fit in to a system before you can change a system.” Does this apply to unethical or corrupt systems, as well? It seems there are some important qualifications to be added to your philosophy.

    • Aimee permalink
      21 May 2014 10:09

      Good question, I’d love to hear your response to this, bro.

      • 21 May 2014 10:21

        Every system has ethical and unethical aspects. And to a large degree that’s a personal determination. I would argue that we have to be willing to put up with some things we find unethical, for a while, in order to change them. However, if an system is, on balance, fundamentally an agent of societal harm, then there are mechanisms for dismantling such systems other than through incremental change from within.

  8. Syd permalink
    1 June 2014 09:34

    I didn’t care how my students took notes but did want them to reason through the statistical problems and show their work. I took notes in composition books (that I still have) in college and graduate school–but it was the only way then. I still go to paper when I am taking notes now. It seems more natural for me. But it may not be natural for this generation. It seems that teaching style is more important than how a student takes notes. Is the material covered so quickly that there is no time for explanation? Is the material presented in an interesting manner? Is there a way to post lecture points on line for emphasis of material? The real deal here is how well the instructor engages the students. And there is an art to that.


  1. Fitting in to Systems. | Complex Roots

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