James Hedberg

they…

March 27th, 2015 by

Hardly a day passes without the following scene unfolding: I meet with a student to discuss a homework problem or test question, or even an example from class. They begin, “can you help me understand this?”

I return with something like, “sure, tell me what you think this problem is about.” or, “ok, can you rephrase the question in your own words?” 

The reply to this is often something that resembles: “so, they give us the initial velocity… “, “They want us to find the tension … “ or, “we don’t know the mass, but they give us the acceleration…”

My immediate thought, which I sometimes verbalize, is “who is this they you keep speaking of”?

If I do ask, there is usually no answer, just an awkward smile, and we go on to talk about the physics of the problem. 

Now, the word I find curious here is they. It’s as if there is a conglomerate of 3rd party taskmasters who are the ones setting the rules, constructing the problems, and dictating what everyone is supposed to be learning. Of course, this is exactly the situation. Most of the educational materials many of my students have been exposed to probably were put together by Pearson or Wiley or some other educational syndicate. While many issues are troubling with this model, the one I find most disturbing is that it displaces the motivation from seeking understanding for its own sake, and places it rather in the pleasing of these 3rd party inquisitors. “They will be so happy if we find this missing variable.” In reality, they don’t care whether you find x or not. You however, should be happy if you do. 

What alarms me also, is that in order for them to have learned the phrase “They want us to find blah blah blah …”, the students must have heard this exact thing said many times, probably by a person of some authority, most likely, their former teachers. I imagine a tired but formerly eager middle school teacher, who needs to get a few core core concepts through, spending his days essentially being a conduit between the edu-content makers and the edu-content receivers. Out of exhausted desperation, he starts seeing his job as nothing more than being a human shaped version of this conduit, so he begins talking this way. They want us to do this, they want you to do that, etc. 

And so, a quick plea to those who must rely on materials prepared and compiled by others, just switch your pronoun to the first or second person. Maybe that will trigger a subtle shift in motivation and after a decade, everyone will be really wanting to know what the momentum of the bowling ball was after it collides with a stationary pin, just because it’s cool to know that kinda thing, not because they want us to.