Today’s guest blogger, K, has been teaching science at a small independent college for over a decade. She spends her leisure time learning from her three young boys. You can read more of her random thoughts at her blog: raisingthewreckingcrew.
We Hold Their Hands Too Much
by K, a College Teacher
Having your teen carry a cell phone is a good idea for many reasons. But, I would argue, it is also a bad idea for those same reasons. If your teenager gets a flat tire, they should be able to fix it without calling daddy. If they find themselves alone at home and hungry, they should be able to feed themselves without calling a parent. This topic is covered very nicely by Lenore Skenazy over at freerangekids.
You may think that I exaggerate, but many college students can scarcely survive a day without having their parents run interference for them. For example, I teach a study abroad course in the Caribbean. The charter flights operate on Caribbean time: Planes have been late, rescheduled, cancelled, and we were once told that our flight didn’t even exist. If you travel a lot, this probably sounds familiar. When it happens to you, you go into problem-solving mode, right? You stay calm and kind, but insistent. You figure it out. What has been fascinating is some of my students’ reactions. I have seen them cry, throw up their hands and say “we’ll never get to the beach”, and call mommy and daddy.
They also call mom and dad for fairly routine situations. When I had a van
break down on a trip, one students starting crying, saying, “now we’ll never get home”, and, again, called mommy and daddy. By the time I had arranged to tow the broken van and had ordered a rental replacement, I had several parents call my cell phone to make sure that little Jimmy or Jane was okay. In some cases, it isn’t even a problem that prompts the need to call their parents. Recently, a student was on the verge of tears because there wasn’t cell phone coverage at our remote location. She said, “I have to talk to my parents every day, otherwise they worry.” Does a young adult really have to report to mom and dad that she has survived another harrowing day in college? Another child called mommy for an hour-long chat every single day of her year abroad in Japan.
Anyone who has finished high school should know how to cook a meal, do their own laundry, read a map, and fix a flat. They should be able to cope with life’s routine challenges without requiring advice. I find it disconcerting that a twenty year-old woman told me she was frightened about flying a commercial airline without a “grown-up” to help her find the gate (true story). How can they be expected to get a job, pay their bills and contribute to society if they can’t help themselves through the airport? Eighteen year-old “children” are serving our country in war zones: We should expect more of the ones who stay home – they can handle it.
As much as students are accustomed to mommy and daddy holding their hands through every routine bump and bruise in daily life, they are used to teachers holding their hands through every academic challenge. Each assignment is expected to include a laundry list of expected content, page limits, citation expectations (down to precise numbers and acceptable sources), and instructions on how they should introduce and conclude their work. Assignments that should be outlets for creative and innovative thinking and problem solving become big fill-in-the-blank worksheets. These assignments become hopelessly tedious, but they are so easy that we can have students do more of them. More is better, right?
It wasn’t always this way. While we have needlessly increased the volume of written work, we have dumbed-down our expectations. In literature courses, my father (in the 1950’s) always had one weekly writing assignment. The assignment never varied – he was to write an essay on “some facet of this week’s reading that you found interesting.” Nothing more needed to be said. By the time I was in school (in the 1980’s), the assignment had been fine-tuned to one broad question about the specific work that we should address. Apparently, we have continued to add specificity to the assignments until they have become meaningless. While I don’t really advocate leaping back to “write about something interesting,” I propose that we support intellectual development by giving fewer, but more meaningful, assignments. We should only assign work that has defined learning goals and requires students to demonstrate mastery of content or independent thought.
Teaching requires putting students into situations that they can only escape by thinking. This is true whether we are teaching life lessons or academic ones.