In 1980, I started writing my Advanced Accounting textbook. I was so young and innocent that I really didn’t understand that writing a textbook by myself of that size and complexity was almost impossible. However, after 3-4 years of intense writing (I remember one Christmas day when I sat typing on my little blue portable typewriter trying desperately to finish the project before it was out of date), I managed to complete the book. Several editions later, I added two wonderful co-authors and the book is now going into its 11th edition as the market leader.
When I finished the first edition of this textbook, I wanted to add a quote at the beginning to put forth my feeling about textbooks and education in general. I looked everywhere and couldn’t find a quote that I liked. I was about ready to give up on the quest. One day I went to get my hair cut and was talking to the young woman who was cutting my hair. I told her about my search for the perfect quote and she casually responded “I have a quotation calendar on my table – why don’t you see what the quote is for today?”
I glanced over and was just stunned to read a sentence from the writer Christopher Morley:
“The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.”
That was exactly how I felt about the textbook that I had just written and that was how I felt about education as a whole. I copied the quote down and it has appeared at the beginning of every edition of Advanced Accounting over the past 28 years.
I am a big believer that colleges and other schools have a bad obsession with teaching “stuff.” In class, we just pour out facts and figures and the poor student can’t write fast enough to get it all down. We like to teach “stuff” because it is easy to test and easy to grade. There are never any arguments; students either know the stuff or they don’t. Consequently, we graduate students with heads crammed full of stuff who cannot always do the thinking necessary to make use of that stuff. I think the world suffers a bit as a result (maybe more than a bit).
I’m in my 41st year as a college teacher and, year by year, I get less interested in teaching stuff. However, I get more interested (my students might say obsessed) with trying to get them to do their own thinking. They are bright folks – if they learn to think clearly and logically, they can figure the stuff out for themselves. That's exactly what I want for them.
How do you get away from teaching “stuff?” How do you encourage students to do their own thinking? Well, you probably already know my answer: Ask them questions and keep at them until they come up with reasonable answers.
--What is going on in this situation?
--How did we get into this mess?
--What are our alternatives?
--Which option would you pick?
--What are the potential benefits and problems?
--What information do you have available and what use can you make of it?
--What have we done before that might be helpful here?
The questions can go on forever and (trust me) they can make your students very frustrated. But that just means they have hit a wall that they need to break through if they are ever going to think for themselves. I have a saying that drives my students crazy when I respond to their queries: “I’m paid enough to ask questions; I’m not paid enough to provide any answers. That’s your problem.”
And, over the years, my students have come back over and over and said "I'm so glad you taught us in that intense questioning style because it has helped me so much in life after school."
Go through your class materials day by day and be brutally honest – how much of it is just teaching “stuff?” Is that what you really want to do? Is that really what your students need from their classes?
If I can paraphrase Christopher Morley, I can’t think of a better education quote than: The real purpose of my class is to trap the student’s mind into doing its own thinking.