Parent, Teacher, Author
EXT. FOREST ROAD – LATER
Will is now biking along an empty forest road. All alone.
He lives much further out than the rest of his friends. It is even darker out here and quiet; unnervingly so. Only the sound of cicadas and a gentle breeze to keep him company.
He bikes past a LARGE METAL FENCE. A warning sign reads: AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY. NO TRESPASSING.
We’re near Camp Hero.
Will suddenly notices something strange: the hair on the back of his arms is standing straight up. It’s like he’s in the middle of a massive electrical storm. And perhaps he is…
A LOW-END RUMBLE reverberates above him. He looks up. Sees nothing but darkness. Clouds over the moon.
He looks back down. His eyes shoot wide.
A TALL FIGURE STANDS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD.
Will spins the wheel — loses control — He veers off the road —
And explodes into —
The bike flies down a steep hill and —
CRASHES. Will flies off the bike. He skids, rolls, eats dirt. As he lies there on the ground, gasping for air, he hears:
STRANGE GUTTURAL SOUNDS. COMING FROM BEHIND HIM.
He pushes to his feet and turns to the sound.
Foliage shudders. The sounds grow. Something is coming. Will abandons his bike —
Learners can often feel just like Will does in this moment from the pilot of the Netflix series Stranger Things. They’re going about their business of learning, they approach something new, and bam, they become terrified. They wait there for a moment, and then, if their teachers don’t support them, they may run; run away from new knowledge, away from the challenge of learning.
We have to ask ourselves, what are our students learning, and at what points may they encounter fear and run? When we think about learning as storytelling, there are three parts of the story that our students must learn. These are the story of themselves, the story of others, and the story of the world around them.
Let’s start with the story of self. What are the parts of our own story that we learn as we seek higher education? How might those parts of the story lead to fear? What kinds of fear might surface? What is the most effective way to respond to such fears in order to move forward with learning? These are the questions that teachers and administrators in higher education need to understand in order to create an experience that helps their students learn effectively.
Patricia Hampl says, “Maybe being oneself is an acquired taste.”[ii] That’s a good way to think about the search for self that occurs in the process of learning. After all, we aren’t approaching information from a vacuum. We approach it within the context of who we are as a person. All of our past experiences, our beliefs, the things we’ve been taught by our families and important communities, these will shape the perspective that we bring to our learning. And our learning may shake up those perspectives, may threaten the things we thought we knew about ourselves, who we are, and our place in this world. And that can be a scary thing.
What is the figure that looms in the road of our learning? And why are we afraid of it? From a developmental perspective, it’s important to remember that many college students are fresh out of high school and living outside of their caregiver’s homes for the first time. So, traditional college students are at a developmental stage in which they are seeking to solidify their identity and are more open to outside influences than they have been before, looking to peers, culture, professors and college staff, to help them as they figure out who they are.
In their 2012 article “Student Identity, Disengagement, and Learning,” Dean and Jolly[iii] apply the concepts of social identity theory to show how certain kinds of learning activities may lead to challenges to a student’s identity, causing them to choose to engage with or pull away from those activities. The authors ask, “Why do some students ‘opt out’ of learning opportunities?”[iv]
Dean and Jolly believe that the reason that students run from learning is a threat to identity. The student has developed an understanding of themselves in light of the people they’ve been around and the experiences that they’ve had. But new learning can challenge that identity. Maybe in the midst of learning about a concept, say culture or gender or religion, the student begins to see things differently. Maybe she begins to wonder if the things that she’s always believed are really true. If she’s going to accept that possibility, she’ll probably realize that she’s going to have to reevaluate a lot of other things that she’s believed in the past.
Dean and Jolly put it like this, when students are learning, they experience cognitive dissonance by “uncomfortably holding conflicting ideas at the same time.”[v] In order to deal with this dissonance and discomfort, the student has to decide between three options. They can change their beliefs, find a justification for their current beliefs, or reject the new idea.[vi] As students struggle with this discomfort, we may see behaviors such as verbal arguments, disruption of the discussion, criticism of everything from the professor’s credentials to the course goals to the learning activity, frequent absences or avoidance during class through the use of computers or mobile devices, or refusal to participate in class discussions.[vii]
The student responds in these ways because they are facing a question of identity. They have to ask, “If this is true, then I may be ____” or “If I do this activity, I might learn _____ about myself.”[viii] For all of us, that threat to identity as we begin to build new understanding in light of new knowledge can be very threatening. It can feel like the Demogorgon from Stranger Things, standing in the road, waiting for us. And we often want to run.
So, the question that we in higher education need to ask is: How do we set up our classrooms and organizations in such a way that we help our students overcome that fear, commit to change, experiment with the new conditions of knowledge, and move into the major change to which learning is calling them? How do we help our students move forward in their own Hero’s Journey?
Dean and Jolly recommend a few approaches to help students deal more effectively with these threats to identity. [ix] I’m going to share my interpretation of these, along with some examples of how one might put them into practice.
In my own teaching experience, I have learned to tell students at the beginning of a course that we are going to be exploring a lot of new ideas, and that one of our goals is to wrestle with some new ideas. As Dean and Jolly recommend, I explicitly state that part of learning is about changing, both intellectually and emotionally. I allow folks to share their thoughts as ideas to consider, and we bring forward several different ways to think about different concepts, evaluating and assessing each from different perspectives. This provides students with the opportunity to see the ambiguity of learning as a natural part of our experience, rather than something to feel threatened by.
This is something that colleges and universities need to adopt as a whole. Our students need to know from the beginning that higher education involves change, growth, and struggle.
Let students know from the very beginning that they will be growing and learning in knowledge, skills, and understanding. I intentionally bring current social issues into the classroom, encouraging students as individuals and as a community to engage and connect with real issues that touch real people. For example, my students engage in activities that allow them to consider how Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model might explain sexual assault cases that occur in public places, such as high school parties or fraternity houses. We spend some class periods examining thematic content of magazines aimed at teenage girls while in another we compare the way gender is represented in two different pieces of children’s media.
I preface new activities by telling students that we were going to try something new, and if it didn’t work exactly as planned, that would be a part of our learning process as well. I have noticed that as I allow for some failure on my own part in class, students become more comfortable with trying new things and failing as well. I believe that this contributes to a more flexible and creative learning environment.
Allowing students to provide evaluation and feedback on each others ideas can take away some of the perceived threat of trying out new concepts. I do this by creating small group activities in which students work together to create a product or apply a theory. As the group develops a concept map or decides how a theory might explain a current social issue, they have to evaluate one another’s ideas and provide feedback on each person’s reasoning.
Having input into class activities or assessments gives students a greater sense of control when it comes to their learning, and can decrease resistance. In one of my classes, rather than having my course schedule fully developed on the first day of class, our first meeting is devoted to discovering what the students are most interested in learning about. We brainstorm a list of topics that they care most about and do both small and larger group activities designed to solicit their interests. I’m then able to design some of the topics we cover around those interests.
When educators are aware of the ways that the learning process can challenge identity, and the fear that can arise from that, we are better able to design a learning experience that helps our students move along on their hero’s journey rather than running from the learning that will help them grow.
[i] The Duffer Brothers (2016). Stranger Things. http://www.zen134237.zen.co.uk/Stranger_Things_1x01_-_Pilot.pdf
[ii] Hampl, Patricia (1991). The Writer on Her Work, Vol. 2, Janet Sternburg, ed.
[iii] Dean, Kathy Lund and Jolly, James P. (2012). Student Identity, Disengagement, and Learning, Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11, 228-243.
[iv] Ibid, pg. 228.
[v] Ibid pg. 234.
[vii] Ibid., pg. 236.
[ix] Ibid., pg. 238.