Backseat Driving

I first heard the phrase “let someone drive” in relation to using a computer, and not actually driving a car, during an adventurous period in my life when I worked briefly at a tech company doing… techy things. (Needless to say I soon headed off to library school and was a happy camper). I found the phrase somewhat odd at the time, but I find it somewhat profound now, oddly enough. Letting someone drive is about control – being confident and comfortable enough to let someone else take over.

I’ve started hearing the phrase more and more in relation to teaching – let students drive! We can learn so much from them! As trendy as it is, and as unpopular as it might be to confess the opposite, I think that many educators, myself included, really struggle with handing the keys over to our students. But why is this?

First off, it can be terrifying to fly without a net – leaving a neatly planned lesson/activity/lecture behind and veering off script into discussion-land (which I’m generally fine with) or, even worse, student-led-demo-ville (a particularly harrowing experience in a library research skills session where you are working with things like wacky databases) can lead to the unexpected, the chaotic, and the disastrous. Suddenly nothing is going as you envisioned! You’ve lost control! The inmates have taken over the asylum and they’re doing everything wrong!

This leads me to my second point/concern – worrying about a loss of control is really a worry about two things – your end destination and the route you take to get there. Letting someone else drive can mean sacrificing your vision for how you’re going to reach a certain goal, and, in an education environment where you’re worried about learning goals and outcomes and the need to prove that you’ve actually reached your destination, relinquishing control can be alarming.

And finally, the reluctance to hand the keys over can also be a reflection on how we see ourselves and how we see our students. A lot of teachers (definitely including myself here) have a bit of a showboat quality. When we can’t do our lesson it can be disappointing – we were all set to go on! We were going to dazzle! And, even worse than the audience being deprived of our brilliance is this – the understudy might stink.

Thinking about letting students drive got me thinking about driver’s ed and how it’s portrayed (stay with me here). It’s a pretty common trope to see a teen in a TV or a film have a driver’s ed disaster – like Cher in Clueless. Those adults were right to not let those kids drive! The kids are a menace! Maybe we too sometimes think that our students can’t handle “driving.”

That cyclist really did, like, come out of nowhere. But she, like, offered to leave a note, so it’s cool.

Having the confidence to let go, having the faith in our ability to guide our students, and believing in our students’ ability to rise to the occasion doesn’t always come easy. It’s something I’m really working on in my own teaching – I feel fortunate to have a good foundation in this, having come from a museum education background which emphasized hands-on and discovery learning, but it’s still sometimes scary/exhilarating/hard to turn things over to my students. Check out below for some ways I’m trying to let my students drive, beyond my usual open class discussion!, and chime in the comment section with your own ideas.

Letting Students Drive: Some Ideas

  1.  Student run search session: I tell students what I need help finding (typically something like information on a current event or even a new pair of jeans or a puppy). They take the wheel and work together in groups to find what I need. We talk about what they did and why they did it. Then we regroup and go again, this time with a more academic topic. Standing back and letting them make mistakes or do things inefficiently can be really difficult, but the experience can open up great conversations and give students something concrete to refer back to once we start going through (together this time) optimal ways to conduct research. It’s basically taking some inquiry based learning principles and engineering ideas about iteration, where it’s okay to make mistakes, and running with them in a non-science environment.
  2. Student developed rubrics: This idea of student self-assessment (which I plan to blog about more later) is discussed by, among others, the great Buffy Hamilton. A type of self-assessment could be where students actually write their own rubrics to assess their research skills. Doing something like this can help students be invested in what they’re working on and letting them compare their own criteria with one of my rubrics can open up great conversations.
  3. Polling sessions: Using something like Poll Everywhere or even Google Forms, students tell me what they want to hear about. I deliver. As much as I might think, but they need to know about such and such!, I also think, in certain instructional scenarios, like orientations or an in-class research workshop, it can be useful to let students play a role in determining the content I cover. Plus, it’s really nice not having to prep a lesson plan in advance. Letting students drive = timesaver.

The House Hunters Decision-Making Model

Ennui cat expresses ennui

Sartre famously commented on how awful free will and choice can be (“I am condemned to be free” – so melodramatic, dude).

But it’s really true – having all the options open to you can be paralyzing, just as having none can be frustrating. And this is why I think something like House Hunter’s (the HGTV show where people select a house from three options) is kind of genius, and definitely appealing.  The show is rigged. But, frankly, I think that’s part of the charm. The people on that show (which I often watch in order to mock – seriously, people, you can change paint. It’s not a deal breaker.) only have three choices. Only three! And while they do the requisite agonizing over which to pick at the end, while dramatic countdown music plays, and one member of the couple sagely notes “we, like, have to make a decision,” it’s only between three things (and not even that given that the show is rigged).

Can you imagine going through life and only having to pick among three options instead of like, the 800 cars on the Carfax website, or the 10 pairs of ambiguously named jeans at the Gap, or the innumerable life decisions that are rarely divided neatly into three distinct options?

House Hunters is like a baby pool of decision-making. And I think that’s something that can actually be highly beneficial to students learning a new skill, like researching. Educators who do things like teach essay writing to younger students have figured this one out – it’s why we give the kids templates and outlines to use. We provide baby steps along the way to writing a full-fledged essay. We limit the number of decisions for students to make as they start writing. For some reason, college students are often expected to leap right in to research, from picking their own topic to finding their own sources. What I’d like to do is promote everything but the research paper assignments (see the example from the UT Libraries) or at least closed circuit activities, so to speak.

For instance, in introductory research classes, I often give students articles on a contemporary topic (I used the Keystone Pipeline debate recently) to use in an evaluation activity. The articles I select all cover distinct political views and, like the houses on House Hunters which are always neatly categorized as “fixer upper” or “great kitchen”, the articles I pre-select fit a variety of distinct needs and provide an opportunity to test out evaluation and decision-making skills without overwhelming my students with options.

As much as I like students to think and discover and experiment for themselves, I think that sometimes you need to take more of a House Hunters approach, particularly with things like early research skills, and set up scenarios for students to work within before unleashing them into the wide world of unlimited choice.

Makerspaces with MacGyver

Let’s kick things off, 80s style. Because, why not.

Awesome to the max, says That Guy from Futurama

Confession: I kind of love MacGyver. The show is amazing. It features problem solving, engineering, SCIENCE (of a dubious nature), Richard Dean Anderson, fly 80s fashion, Cold War antics (darned Russians), and one of the best theme songs ever. It’s the best.

I’m always endeavoring to make my classes somewhat entertaining (I teach research methods which can be admittedly dry for the uninitiated), and, to that end, I’m always seeking out pop-culture tie-ins, hands-on activities, and the like. So I was pleased to see that LifeHacker has something called a MacGyver challenge. They give you an object (in true MacGyver fashion it’s something like a paper clip) and you have to do something cool with it.

I love stuff like this – encouraging people to be creative, have fun, experiment, and explore. This captures the spirit of making and hacking, which is increasingly making its way into higher ed and has already found something of a foothold in museums, public libraries, etc. (Check out this great post over at The Ubiquitous Librarian about Hackathons). I think libraries and schools would do well to have their students participate in the MacGyver challenge – it’s a ready-made STEM activity, delivered to your doorstep. Learning environments, whether they are in a classroom or a library, should be places of experimentation and innovation and wacky inventing and fun.

MacGyver did absurd things to get out of equally absurd situations, and he was pretty much always successful (unless he wasn’t for dramatic reasons; this was a TV show after all). But his counterpart, SNL’s MacGruber, couldn’t escape a paper bag.

To have a Maker Space, I actually think it’s important to embrace both. MacGyver promotes the use of engineering, science, critical thinking skills, and, dare I say, information literacy skills (MacGyver could take in a situation, assess the tools at hand, and synthesize things into a solution in like 10 seconds – he was like a literacy ninja) to solve problems.

But MacGruber can actually teach a valuable lesson about failure. Things don’t always (or even usually) work the first time and, in engineering especially, you often have to return to the drawing board. Problem solving (whether it’s building a device out a toothpick and a tic-tac or tackling a research question) is an iterative process and having open-ended engineering challenges in spaces like libraries, where you can create, experiment, and also fail, is a good thing.

The great thing about maker challenges is that even if you don’t do an actual hands-on challenge itself, you can still apply the creative spirit of making and hacking to learning, both inside and outside the classroom.

Also, can Maker Spaces with MacGyver become a TV Show? Someone call Richard Dean Anderson.