Monday, November 23, 2015

What Do You Want To Be? vs. What Problems Do You Want To Solve?

The image on the left appeared on my Facebook feed the other day.  It piqued my interest. And it came just in time, for  few days before, students in my basic writing class said that teachers could help students stay motivated if we encouraged them to think about their purpose. So I decided to “hack” the quote by Jaime Casap, an “education evangelist” specializing in information technology and systems for Google. Though not a shill for Google nor a dyed-in-the- wool techno-disciple, I do find his quote provocative. 

One of the objectives for basic writing is to strengthen written fluency and stamina. So students typically do focused free- and journal- writing in class. Sometimes to warm up for the day’s topic. Other times to explore an idea or craft move. They asked for time to think about their goals. I was curious about their answers. So I gave it a whirl.

I posed a series of thee questions, giving students time to list or free write their answers:
  1. What jobs or careers would you like to have when you graduate from college?
  2. What problems - big or small - would you like to solve?” I shared a few examples - transportation, housing, government. I tried not to be too suggestive, but in retrospect, I see that my suggestions were too leading.
  3. What would happen if schools asked students from an early age the question, “What problem do you want to solve”” instead of “What do you want to do when you graduate?” Please explain your answers. 
I’ve taken the liberty of selecting representative and remarkable quotes from students' responses, clustering them into categories. While the sample size is in no way large enough to draw definitive conclusions, the findings are still suggestive. And if the responses don’t speak for all students, each one speaks for one of the individuals in the classroom. 

Since the room was full of students, it’s no surprise that a common problems they noted was education.

One student was concerned about how teachers are trained, wondering if “students could completely understand what they were being taught”. A second student mentioned safety: “Some people don’t feel safe at school They feel like they could get beat up. Kids should feel safe when they got to school and be happy, not so scared that they would carry a knife to school”.A third student worried that students may feel directionless and need guidance: “ Many young adults have no idea what they are doing in school” or “what they want from school”. The student went on to say that “we  have brilliant brains and ideas but just need to get . . .  on the right track."

The second theme I’d term as “social justice concerns." No doubt my examples may have modeled the sorts of answers that came up, but I’m still struck by students' passionate answers.

Safety turned up again: “I’d probably say people killing one another. Growing up, I’d always fear people with guns, knives, tasers. Even the cops." Corruption appeared on several responses. One student expressed anxiety about where s/he grew up. “[In] my home country Mexico, corruption  [is] destroying my beautiful country", one student wrote. "Politicians in Mexico promise to do the right thing, but in the end, the one who benefits is the Mexican Mafia." 

Poverty, specifically housing was another recurring issue. One student spoke of exorbitant rents, “especially in cities like Los Angeles, Oakland, and here in San Diego. Another student brought up the plight of the homeless: "They deserve a chance to get on their feet. A lot of people treat and talk badly about the homeless.” 

Sexism and racism rounded out the social justice cluster. “The problem I want to solve is having female employees in the field of professional sports,” writes one student. “Even if a woman has a Ph.D. in sports medicine, she will be declined a job with professional sports teams due to sexism.” Another student expressed concerns about racism. “I hate it when people make fun of others because of skin color, language, or nationality,” s/he wrote. “I would like to solve the immigration problem because I hate to see kids separated from their families.

Two types of answers made up the responses toward my version of Casap's question. A third of responses expressed something to the effect that  “students at a young age would not be able to  think of a problem to solve. They are just kids. If someone asked me when I was younger, I probably wouldn't understand it clearly like I do right now." A few respondents expressed their own lack of awareness. “We are too young to even know what is right for us,” said one. “I haven’t even figured out my career . . . and I’m already a young adult  starting college”. 

One respondent agreed that  “It would be confusing to kids because most of them don’t know about the problems that we have in the community, around us, and in the world”. Yet this student also recognized that youth could answer the question given proper education. “First what we need to do is tell and show the kids the problems that have and see how they respond to the problem,” this respondent opined. “Then we can ask them what specifically what they want to solve to make the world a better place." 

The tone of the remaining responses, about two/thirds, suggest that educators (me included) do a disservice to students by asking the wrong question:

  • I believe asking children about the problems they would want to solve would make them more aware of world problems.

  • We will be able to get their minds focused on the bigger picture. Eventually, they will want to strive to help the people. I say this because young kids are smart.

  • They  would be be more focused on their goals. Children can do anything if they set their minds on their goal. If we asked kids this question, they would begin to see wrong from right. They would be less selfish.

  • I think I would have had a different major. If had been asked a long time ago, I would have tried to fix problems. Or [the question] would change kids’ mindsets. But for real, I think it might change the way we think. It might change everything.

The ensuing discussion was highly engaging and thought-provoking, for me as well as the students. They verbally agreed that thinking about problems instead of careers made them see learning in a different way. I detected that thoughtfulness in their verbal and written responses. I’m grateful that I “found” a way to work on fluency and stamina and at the same time, ensure students are thinking about themselves. And I’m glad they were able to share meaningful ideas about themselves and their futures. 

Reading and hearing students' idealism and passion invigorated me (even as the purpose of the activity was to have students focus on their own goals!). And I'm honored students felt safe enough to share these truths with me - in writing! What a delight to find a way to use composition, especially in a basic writing course, to explore important ideas about ourselves and the world.

Students responses also got me to reflect on my own career, my purpose, and my decision making process. No one asked me what problem I wanted to solve. And Casap’s assertion that asking about “problems” would definitely got me thinking differently how I approach career and personal development in my own class. His distinction between “who I’d work for” and “what do I need to learn” is certainly a compelling idea. 

The next time I try this activity, I will refine the questions. The queries definitely informed and shaped student responses; my questions were too leading. So I’ve got to make them capacious enough to allow for all sorts of problems: global, national, familial, and personal. 

I plan to do a  follow-up activity because I wouldn’t like them (or me!) to forget this novel way of finding our purpose. I will ask students to select one or two of the problems they’d like to solve and to brainstorm the kinds of knowledge they would need to solve those problems. Perhaps even asking them to consider the possible intersection between their problem and intended major - and what that might mean.

And, the riskier question for me as their English  teacher would be to ask, "How might the writing skills and concepts we’re learning in this class help you solve your problems?" Perhaps the better question is for me to ask myself how I'm framing my lessons: What can I do to effectively create the
conditions for students to see/experience how writing can help them solve problems?