At the start of each new course, I pledge to be more open to the experiences, circumstances, and concerns of students. Time and time again I say that I will never assume laziness or bad will as the cause of something. But every time I still make the same mistake.
Halfway through my course this quarter – a group project – I asked students to give each other feedback on their contributions in the team. Group members gave each other written comments as well as numerical scores. ‘I see that your score for effort is much lower than the average in the group’ I emailed the four or five people that this applied to. ‘It seems to me that this is a learning opportunity.’
A learning opportunity for them, I meant. For me, it turned out.
‘Before you start reading’, began the answer that reminded me that I had strayed again. ‘I notice that my email, because of my emotions, does not always seem very coherent and that it is really long.’
I read the email with a growing feeling of guilt and shame.
There is an exercise that I’ve been using for many years now, in which groups gather a wide range of ideas for their project in short rounds of a couple of minutes. I know this method from when I was a student myself and it always creates a cheerful, playful atmosphere. It’s great for getting a project off the ground quickly and is also good for team building. At least, that is what I thought.
‘Education can only start seriously if you know and trust each other’
For this particular student it was the complete opposite. For him, his autism meant that the time and group pressure were counterproductive. And because the rest of his group did take to the exercise naturally, it was hard for him to explain calmly and clearly why he suddenly tuned out. It created conflict in the group. His fellow group members got the impression that he was not interested in the subject. ‘It does not seem to be your thing’, they wrote in their feedback.
The student felt less and less confident that he was able to make a useful contribution. ‘I feel like my time at TU Delft is useless and I notice that I am losing all motivation to come here.’
Could your failure as a teacher be any more tragic?
Luckily there was still time for a good discussion and a positive end to the project. But this case reminded me that education is not a one way street. Students are not empty vessels. They are humans. Each one a different human. Education can only really start in earnest if you know and trust each other.
Fortunately this student trusted me enough to let me help him learn something that cannot be captured in any learning objective. And to teach me something about education that I could never have learned from colleagues or course evaluations.
From now on, in cases of missed deadlines, lack of effort, or shoddy last-minute work, I will start by asking: ‘How are you? Is everything OK?’
(Experience and quotes shared with the permission of the student in question.)
Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.