Why do we want to micro-manage students?

Posted on November 6, 2013

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Annie Murphy Paul just posted a blog post about interests and our ability to manipulate the interests of students. This discussion coincides with my exploration of Sudbury Valley schools very nicely. One of the main questions that Sudbury Valley schools raise is, “why do we want to micro-manage students?”.

As in, even if we can avoid negatively influencing students (e.g. making them hate math), which is an inherent risk every time we try to manipulate students to do what we want, why are we so convinced that we need to micro-manage students?

Anyways, here is the blog post: Does Interest Have To Arise Naturally?

And here is my response from the comments:

Annie,

I agree with most of your observations here (e.g. the real world is a complex place filled with intrinsic and extrinsic motivators), but I think there are two questions that need to accompany this line of exploration.

1) I think it’s less about what is possible and more about the risks involved. The more we attempt to micro-manage the interests of students in order to get a prescribed outcome, the greater the risk that we do negatively affect a student’s relationship with certainly material (e.g. they learn to hate math). If we limit our micro-managing to a certain level (e.g. we never threaten any level of punishment, such as a bad grade, on a student if they do not obey), then there is the distinct chance that students will not do what we want them to. Where you draw the line on this issue is a very complex argument.

2) There is evidence through environments such as Sudbury Valley that students will choose to learn the truly important subjects (every student at Sudbury Valley learns how to read. 100%). Beyond these truly important subjects, which students will choose to learn in a healthy environment, you have to question whether your opinion of what is important is 100% accurate.

Imagine is adults had spent a lot of time trying to convince Maya Angelou that math was very important, and, in doing so, had led her to believe that poetry was not as important. Had she been dissuaded from exploring poetry as she had in favor of math, the world would have lost an important contribution to our culture, and probably would have gained a mathematician that was good but not great.

I’m just not sure why we want to manipulate students to go in one direction vs. another. Every time we do this an opportunity is lost for a student to explore something on their own volition. A student may read a book because we’ve paid them to, but they will get less out of that book (they just want to finish it and get the dollar) than they would get out of an activity of their own choosing. What we are saying is that reading the book is more important to this student than what they would have chosen on their own volition, but the fact is that we have very little evidence to back up that claim.

I just don’t think we can claim with any great confidence that any specific child should learn any subject that they would not eventually choose to learn on their own.

If that is the case then why take the risk of trying to manipulate students in one direction vs. another?

I should have added to the comment that I do think adults can help students think about the world, using their life experience to provide advice, helping students see around corners. I think students will seek out such advice from trusted adults and, in doing so, will take their advice to heart. They may not follow it exactly, but they will think about it. Personally I think that is the relationship that we as adults should strive for…

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