Friday, May 22, 2009

Education as a Social Contract

I recently read Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely, and was intrigued by his commentary on how our behavior is heavily influenced by either market or social norms.  When we perceive ourselves to be in a "market" situation, one where we have a business-like contract that requires us to do certain things with the expectation that we will be compensated for our efforts, we act very much like a consumer, employee, client, etc.  Contrastingly, in other situations (e.g. volunteer work, familial interactions, etc.) we perform certain actions not because we believe we will or should be compensated, but because it is the sociall acceptable thing to do.  The work of Ariely and others indicates that we are much happier, more engaged, and likely to report enjoyment when we are driven by social norms and acting without the sort of cost-benefit analysis that drives our actions in other settings.  This made me wonder what type of paradigm students in higher education function on when they enroll in courses, complete assignments, etc.  

My sense is that most students approach education with an attitude that they are here to get something from the university (a degree, certification, and if we're lucky, knowledge) and that in order to procure that set of goods they are required to make some type of payment.  That payment comes in the form of studying, taking exams, writing papers, and in general jumping through the hoops we set up for them (hence the image at the top of the page).  Following Ariely's thinking, this is likely to lead to a very superficial learning experience, one in which students do as little as possible to garner the largest reward (i.e. high gpa's, nice letters of recommendation from faculty members, etc.).  Furthermore, they aren't as likely to enjoy the experience because they are much like the employee who goes to work merely to earn a paycheck and collect insurance benefits.  There is little to no meaning in the endeavor.  

So, my question is how do we help students approach their education as a social contract where they are driven by social norms rather than the market norms that seem to govern the vast majority of our lives?  Is that even realistic?  

I think it is, but it will take a lot of change on the part of our insitutions and those of us who interact with students on a daily basis.  John Tagg has some interesting ideas that seem to be connected to this issue.  If you're interested, read up on what he has to say about "hot cognitive economies" in The Learning Paradigm College. 

1 comment:

lionofzion said...

Maybe this is one of the reasons for the stereotype of the good Asian student-- as Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers, Asian culture has a lot to do with the success of its students, and part of that culture involves a sense of social obligation to work hard, and to complete assignments and pay attention out of respect for the authority of the teacher rather than because of an ulterior motive