This is the question that Robert Talbert asks over at Casting Out Nines. The post itself is mostly a quote from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the only self-help books I have ever found to be really challenging in terms of doing more than just giving you one long pep talk.
The quote deals with Covey’s distinction between Character Ethic and Personality Ethic and reminds me of the old debate about sincerity: can you “try” to be sincere or is it just something that comes from within. Any attempt to fake it ends in a lack of sincerity. For Covey, the Character Ethic arises when we internalize our values while the Personality Ethic is practiced by those who make no fundamental changes in the way they relate to others, but simply play the game in an artificial kind of way. I would encourage you to read the quote before you continue reading this post…
Talbert ends his blog post with this observation and question:
It seems like this quote is pretty dense in implications for educational systems, student approaches to learning, faculty approaches to teaching… what do you think?
I agree with Talbert. I teach educational technology and qualitative research courses to undergraduates and graduates. So many of the big questions with which we deal–digital divide, digital natives, social media, Internet privacy, copyright and creative commons, using technology in the classroom–do not have final, fill in the blank, multiple choice kinds of answers. Instead, they offer up all sorts of murky waters where students can muck around. I have my own ideas about many of them but rather than imposing my world view, I prefer to take a more constructivist approach, challenging students to find their own way through the content and then creating projects that help others do the same.
What I have discovered is that while some students really thrive in this environment, others do not, and it is my perception that it was the “good” students who often struggled because the very things that made them good had been taken away. What was that thing? The ability to give the teacher what she wanted whether it was the right answer, the neat outline, or the correct number of words. Covey’s distinction, which I had forgotten over time, provides a perfect metaphor for this phenomenon: the students who thrive in my environment do so because they care about learning, more specifically, they care about their own learning and creativity, something I like to think I give them a chance to demonstrate. The “good” students, however, often turn in less than stellar work since they don’t have the personal tools available to them to really create something on their own without precise directions from me.
I’ll never forget the grad student who apologized for using his musical knowledge as a basis for a project he did: it wasn’t “educational” he thought but he had taken me at my word that I wanted the students to find their own path. So, he trusted me, but only to a point as I suspect he had been told that same thing in the past only to be dinged when he actually tried it. I offered reassurance that he had done exactly what I had hoped all my students would do.
This semester, I am struggling with having my undergraduates join the world of Twitter. I want to give them an experience of a professional learning network that can fit into one semester and Twitter just makes sense. But, the open ended nature of the assignment makes it difficult for many of them: they want to know how many tweets, when they have to be posted and so forth. I, on the other hand, am asking them to make themselves part of that world and do what seems right. Already, the lines are being drawn. I have had a few great conversations with one or two students and others are starting to come on board, but I can tell those who really want me to impose some order. I am resisting even as I am offering support: ideas for things to tweet, suggestions for people to follow, and replying and retweeting the things they do post. I am asking them to pay the price, which is Covey’s distinction between character and personality:
To focus on technique is like cramming your way through school. You sometimes get by, perhaps even get good grades, but if you don’t pay the price day in and day out, you never achieve true mastery of the subjects you study or develop an educated mind.