First published in Dutch on the 10th of Juni 2010
A Need for Clarity
Students want clarity. This demand is, of course, justified. All students need information in order to perform. Where and when are the contact hours and exams and which assignments need to be handed in? What are the learning objectives of the course, which activities do the assignments contain and which sources of information need to be studied?
Most schools can provide clarity about this matter. However, a problem occurs when the students’ hunger for clarity has not been quenched nonetheless. “What exactly do I have to know and which skills must I be able to demonstrate?”, “Which elements are particularly important and which are not?”, “What do I have to be able to reproduce on the exam and what not?” Teachers and supervisors often get dispirited about these questions with which students demand an almost merciless clarity. I frequently encounter students who will not be satisfied until I explain a method minutely with the aid of a crystal clear protocol of steps and sub steps.
These students often find it incomprehensible when a supervisor does not meet their demands. In my view, the confusion occurs because students realise that the questions need to be answered, but they fail to realise that they are the ones to answer them instead of the teacher. It is a fundamental truth about the learning process that eventually it is only the individual in question who can create clarity for themselves. They do this by looking for the answers to specific questions about the topic on their own. Every student, who truly wishes to learn, must face this challenge.
People like challenges. Our entire cultural history confirms this truth. Even on the level of day-to-day business this is clear. Nothing is as tedious as playing a game you always loose. Yet, always winning is just as uninspiring. Instead, we make the game a little more complicated or increase the level of skills needed some other way. This way we develop ourselves ever further.
Connection in Education
In education we try to connect to this process. The foundation for this was laid by the famous Russian learning psychologist Lev Vygotsky, more than eighty years ago. He distinguished between the zone of actual development and the zone of proximal development. In the first zone an individual can function well and primarily employs his own experiences to act correctly. The zone of proximal development describes a more complex situation. The individual is not hopelessly incompetent, but he is not able to function properly without assistance either. He needs additional information or help which education, for instance, can provide.
Stages of Competence
Learning psychology distinguishes four stages of competence:
1. Unconscious incompetence
2. Conscious incompetence
3. Conscious competence
4. Unconscious competence
The boundary between the zone of actual development and proximal development lies with the second stage of competence. This is where the learning process often begins. Learners experience phenomena they cannot explain or they encounter information they do not understand. There are, however brief, moments of doubt and confusion. This feeling is cause to either quit or make the necessary steps to get to stage three.
Doubt and Confusion
As early as Socrates’ time it was known that being conscious of one’s incompetence is essential for the learning process. Plato described this element of his master’s method as elenchus. A student is interviewed about contradictions and vague elements in his views about a topic he thinks he is an expert on, until he must admit he ‘does not know anymore.’ This state of confusion was considered a purifying process which would free a person of views that limited his learning.
The Feeling of Being Competent
Doubt and confusion lead to curiosity and studiousness in a healthy learning process. We want the pleasant feeling of conscious competence. However, we do not experience that feeling just like that; for instance, we do not feel it when we are helped. Which parent does not know the reaction they get when they try to help their toddler with their shirt that is buttoned incorrectly or their shoelaces that are untied? “No dad, I want to do it myself.” Your patience as a parent gets heavily tried, but it is essential for the child’s feeling of being competent to do it himself.
Why, then, do students want their teachers to ‘tie their shoelaces?’ Why do students not take the challenge? This is an important question; one that teachers cannot easily answer by stating that students are simply lazy and spoilt.
Halfway a self management course a student surprised me with his helpless attitude. The Christmas holidays were due and he absolutely did not know how to plan his work for this period. He did not know what would happen during the holidays and so was not able to do more than formulate general (read: vague) goals because of it. In view of his tendency to put off his work, his half-hearted attempt to plan his work was doomed to fail. His defeated attitude proved that he realised this too. He asked me for support. “Do I have to consider not going to my parents’ for the holidays or do I have to bring my work along with me? Do I take time off until New Year’s or do I go home after Christmas?” Of course, those were questions I could not answer for him. This student was not lazy. I knew he played soccer fanatically and I asked him whether he upheld the same attitude during a match. Does he run after the ball in the same half-hearted and doubtful manner because all kinds of external factors make the end result unclear (is the opponent faster? Is he closer to the ball than I am? What if I trip? Etc.). His answer was, of course, “no!” He would go for the ball entirely, all or nothing!
Differences in Attitudes
The obvious explanation for this difference in attitude is that the activities are very different. An enthusiastic mentality is easier to reach with concrete and practical activities and a clear goal. This is certainly true, but it does not provide a complete explanation.
I have observed the same striking discrepancy with activities closely related to studying. I remember a student who absolutely loved thrillers. The books could not be big enough and the mystery was cherished. Cryptic statements and confusing characters amplified a pleasant thrill and curiosity. Each line on every page was read with the utmost concentration. A textbook, on the other hand, inspired entirely different reactions; a tricky paragraph was treated with slumped shoulders and loud sighs. That particular mystery only provoked irritation and frustration. This time around, she even did not want any mystery; instead she wanted the information to be accessible to her openly and directly served in easy to understand chunks. The confusion that was so welcomed in the thrillers she reads, could now even lead to panic and fear.
And so the question is not, why a student does not take challenges; for he does take challenges. The question is why he does not do it in education?
Show of Incompetence
In earlier essays I wrote about what fear of failure students I coach, experience. Many believe that in higher education there is little room for doubts, fears, and moments of failure. They think they always need to know what they are doing and what they want. When a student with this mindset is doubtful about things or receives a low grade, he does not experience this as an opportunity to learn but rather as a show of (permanent) incompetence.
I find that many pupils and students have trouble accepting the level of conscious incompetence in education. This does not stem from laziness, but from fear that they do not live up to the expectations imposed on them by their parents’ pressure to succeed, by education, and society at large.
Pressure to Succeed
The pressure to succeed already starts with the ‘CITO’ exam in primary education, which grants pupils access to the levels ‘havo’ and higher in secondary education provided that they gain a score of 542 and higher. When they score lower they risk landing in the level ‘vmbo.’ This type of education knows enough negative and dreadful stories to make pupils with such a score experience this as a worst case scenario. As soon as they enter secondary education, this pressure does not disappear.
Order of Rank by Learning Abilities
Rineke van Daalen, sociologist at the University of Amsterdam, uncovered the unpronounced paradigm in education in her book Het VMBO als stigma. There still is a measuring method which uses a traditional understanding of ‘learning abilities’ to order pupils in classes. Pupils are not coached, but they are measured, judged, and branded. You attend vmbo because you are not a great learner and not because you are great with your hands. Vmbo students also experience it like this.
This focus on traditional learning abilities is subscribed to by a recent article in Trouw about delay at havo level (2 June, “Havo is geen ‘VWO, maar dan makkelijker’” – “HAVO is not ‘VWO, but easier’”). Strikingly many students repeat a year at that level. The reason would be that havo is treated too much as VWO for the less intelligent students.
How is this message supposed to give students a feeling of safety, never mind stimulating them? I believe this rather contributes to a wide range of inadequate student behaviour. One student becomes fearful and insecure, while another nonchalantly shows (feigned) disinterest.
Searching for Confirmation
Van Daalen describes in her book how many vmbo students worry about the quality of their achievements and their general level. They often look for confirmation about the quality of their work with their teachers. Does this sound familiar? Does not the university student look for similar confirmation in his own way? Secondary schools neatly pass the baton on to the Universities. The student mainly experiences being measured and judged. The millstone around his neck is in the same way the imminent mark of stupidity. I have to get through university successfully because I finished VWO level!
Every student wants to experience a feeling of conscious competence. The stage of conscious incompetence is essential in this process. It cannot be passed over and, simultaneously it cannot be experienced as the treat of incorrigible failure. Doubt and confusion are valuable feelings which should stimulate curiosity and studiousness. This is only possible in a learning environment in which doubt and confusion is cherished and does not immediately lead to a negative assessment. Every department should encourage their students to carry on, no matter what.