Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The second smartest person in the room?

I very much enjoyed this letter to Janet Napolitano, the recently appointed head of the University of California, from Berkeley faculty member Michael O'Hare. I won't comment on the significance of the head of homeland security being appointed to lead a system the most indelible recent image of which is security officers wielding pepper spray against student protestors.

What I really liked was the pithy way O'Hare summed up the state of college teaching:
For the most part, we are teaching students how to be the second-smartest person in a room with one person who knows the truth, but no-one in the big world pays for that skill: you get paid to be good at finding new truths, and making other people smart.
O'Hare's description resonates with my picture of what is often thought of as a "good student": someone who knows how to echo the instructor, but is completely helpless when given the autonomy to investigate things on their own. In my article on intentional learning, I call these performing learners:

Often motivated by external goals, such as grades, performing learners are task-oriented with short-term goals. Like conforming learners, they are averse to risk and rarely welcome intellectual challenges, but they will take a more deliberate or diagnostic approach to their own learning. They are frequently diligent and systematic, but wish to expend only the effort necessary to satisfy short-term external goals. Performing learners make use of an array of resources (the instructor, peers, campus  tutors, etc.) and feel most comfortable in settings where the instructor’s expertise can be readily accessed.
Am I right in thinking that our classrooms are packed with performing learners, all of whom are fated to be the second smartest person in whatever rooms they find themselves in? And if so, what can we do about that?

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