Stop with the “helicopter teaching!”

This Chronicle of Higher Education piece on “The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher” is a must-read. Steven Conn puts into words something that has been bothering me since the spring semester, when I had a class of students in which the clear dividing line was between 1) those students who wanted to take our discussions and assignments and make more of them and 2) those students who wanted their hands held.

The first group would, for example, see the openness of an essay prompt as an opportunity for creativity.  The second group would, for example, see the openness or ambiguity of an essay prompt as a threat.

The first group would take a vanilla essay prompt and use it to make a banana split of an essay, thinking of creative ways to frame or explore the problem or issue at hand. The second group, after demanding rubrics, examples, and a list of exactly what they needed to do to get an ‘A,’ would take the vanilla essay prompt and give me vanilla ice cream.

The first group embraced challenge, saw ambiguities as opportunities, and took risks. The second ground struggled to embrace challenge, saw ambiguities as threats, and avoided risks. 

Conn sees this same problem and explores a number of possible causes: our reluctance to watch our students struggle and fail, the technology-intensified expectation of constant availability and therefore potential handholding, and spoon-feeding that is sometimes encouraged by standardized testing.

According to Conn, these are behind the fact that his “students have better standardized-test scores than they did 15 years ago, but they are terrified of thinking on their own. They don’t know how—and perhaps 19-year-olds never did—but they are scared of trying.”

Conn might have added to the list of potential causes three more:

  1. Insistence upon standardized measurements of student performance, which is in some ways related to assessment at the course and program level. We’re now told that we must assess every goal or objective we claim for our students, and that these assessments should ideally be linked to objective, direct, and not-self-reported measures of student learning outcomes. It is hard, maybe impossible, to measure objectively and in a standardized way whether students are willing to take risks, get creative, or take responsibility for their own eduction.
  2. The emphasis on performance, rather than learning. Emphasizing the former discourages students from taking risks and embracing challenges. Emphasizing the latter encourages risk-taking. (See Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning for more on this.)
  3. Many children have grown up in environments that discourage risk-taking, adventure, and challenge. See this article on adventure playgrounds and this one on the irony of the overprotected child.

Conn notes that students and faculty share responsibility for these developments:

This is not, I hasten to add, entirely the fault of students. Just as toddlers pick up the messages their overinvolved parents send them, students pick up on the “customer service” ethos that now permeates so much of higher education.

Rarely do students hear that their education is their own responsibility or that it must be worked at rather than simply consumed. And that’s the point: I can teach in a meaningful way only if students are prepared to learn.

Teaching and parenting share this in common: In both relationships, the goal is to produce independent and self-sufficient human beings. The risk that helicopter parents run is that they will raise children so coddled that they have a hard time functioning on their own in the larger world. So too with the way we have infantilized our students. Afraid or unwilling to challenge them, we pass them through with perfectly good grades but without much of a sense of how to work on their own or think for themselves.

It takes two to tango, as the old cliché has it. But the new partners will never learn to dance if the others keep dragging them around the dance floor, doing all the steps for them. 

But as clear as Conn is about faculty’s share in responsibility, he gives little advice on what we should do to reverse course and to help our students get comfortable with creativity and risk taking. I’m sure the list of potential approaches is long, but here are a few ideas:

  1. I’m going to start giving all of my classes mini-lectures on vocation, ambition, risk-taking, failure, and grit/fortitude.
  2. I’m also going to emphasize that they are learning to take risks, rather than showing me how well they can take risks. This gets back to the learning vs performance issue. I don’t want to discourage risk-taking in risk-taking.
  3. We should develop more programs that build in encouragements for our students to take risks. I’m glad to be involved with several programs of that sort, but I’m not sure it’s emphasized often enough at the program/department/office level.

These won’t fix everything for the students who struggle with embracing challenge, seeing some ambiguities as opportunities, and taking risks, but they might be a start.

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