On Trusting Students

There are three signals that you have been hanging out (either physically or virtually) the people you should be.

  • First, they say and write things that make you realize you are right.
  • Second, they say and write things that make you realize you are wrong.
  • Third, they help you connect ideas.

In the last week, I experienced all three.

At the New England Educational Research Organization’s annual conference, I attended a session in which two papers were presented. The authors of these papers “proved” I was right about teaching. I read an opinion that “proved” I was wrong about one aspect of curriculum. Together, the two made me recognize a trend in education that has been destructive over the last few decades.

At NEERO, I heard two papers presented:

 In the discussion that followed it became clear that the authors of both papers were advocating (and instantiating) a type of education that I have believed for my entire career that students and the society that depends on “smart” people need. Rather than approaching science as a collection of facts to be learned and retained until they are reiterated on tests, these scholars approach science as a complex human endeavor that depends on observation, reason, and collaboration. Science education should find students participating in science.

 The work of a teacher is to guide students through challenging and complex data collection in authentic settings. The data collection and analysis must be reasonable, logical, and accurate. One of the changes in teaching these authors appear to support is a curriculum that includes problems that have unknown answers before students start.

 These authors “proved” I have been right about my beliefs about what comprises good teaching throughout my career.

J. W. Traphagen posted “Sanitizing ‘Problematic’ Old Books Doesn’t Protect Anyone” on the Daily Beast (https://www.thedailybeast.com/sanitizing-problematic-old-books-doesnt-protect-anyone). In this post, Traghagen argues against editing texts to remove offensive language or themes. In the time since the practice has become common, I have been supportive of the practice. I reasoned the works were more accessible as teachers would be more likely to include them in their instruction if they can avoid controversy and that students would be more likely to engage with a text if they were not distracted by offensive elements.  I did not see sanitization as different from abridging or adapting a text for performance by actors.

Traphagen’s argument seems best captured in the editor’s warning he suggests accompany sanitized texts: “This book has been rewritten to protect readers from discomfort and critical thinking.”  While editors have always played an active role in determining the published versions for texts, Traphagen suggests this new practice extends editorial oversight to a new and disturbing level. Further, Traphagen argues it is intellectually lazy to avoid reading and learning from the original versions of the texts. Becoming educated requires we understand context and negotiate offensive content within changing social norms and complex personal beliefs, and that we realize both norms and beliefs change.

Traphagen “proved” I was wrong in my belief that sanitizing text was a harmless practice.

Nature (which we study through science) and humanity (which we study through literature) are never simple.  All the thinkers whose work I have described in this post recognize that reality, and they trust students to be capable of contemplating, understanding, and learning from complex, messy and authentic problems in the sciences and in the humanities.

 As I look back at my career, I do believe that one of the most important changes in education has been an increasing distrust in students as learners and educators as teachers. We see this in the “importance” of learning objectives; “if we don’t tell students what they are going to learn, then they won’t learn” is the misguided reasoning. We see it in the hyperfocus on measurable outcomes; despite their expertise, “teachers can’t judge if students have learned” is the misguided reasoning.

We hear and read much dissatisfaction with education; the validity of the criticisms can be debated. I am convinced that trusting students to engage with messy content is one way to improve what students experience. It may not reduce the complaints about education, but our students will be better thinkers if we do.