I had a curious experience this week at the college. It illuminates assumptions my students have about learning.
I’ve assigned The Big Short to my sections of English 102 (it’s an intro to research class). Most of the students who refused to read it have either dropped the class or no longer attend. The rest, about 60% of the originally registered, fall somewhere between the few students who are able to engage a decent discussion of the material to the rest who find the book impenetrable. That second group really offered me interesting items in recent essays.
I asked a question regarding luck vs. intelligence. Two of the figures in the book (Ledley and Mai), young men who shorted the CDO market in the middle of the last decade, describe themselves as lucky even though they do very intelligent things. They research the markets. They seek the help of folks (whom they perceive to be) more knowledgable than themselves. They actively seek out people who might offer them an opposite point of view to their own and, when they are unable to find any, conclude that they must be right about what they have learned.
Most students considered them to be primarily lucky. They ignored their actions and focussed on their descriptions of themselves. After all, these men must be self-aware. They’re rich!
Students also revealed striking assumptions about how one acquired knowledge. Some of them:
1.) There are two groups of people. One group knows things. The other group does not. If you exist in the second, you cannot move to the first. (This despite all the evidence in the book to the contrary!)
2.) You’re lucky if you know things and unlucky if you don’t.
3.) If you have someone who can help you, you’re lucky. If you ask them for help, you’re even more lucky.
4.) It’s not fraud if it takes someone time to figure out they’ve been tricked. Fraud only occurs when the person who’s been tricked figures it out right away.
5.)It’s normal to get tricked. Therefore, it’s not fraud.
6.) You’re lucky if you make a decision to improve your life. If you choose not to improve your life, it’s because you’re unlucky.
There are others but they’re complicated and would require me to deal too deeply with the reading material here. The ones I’ve listed, I think, are already shocking. While they help me understand why some percentage of my community college students look at learning as a hopeless endeavor, they don’t help me understand how these lessons have been formed. You’d assume students understand that they once did not know how to drive but eventually learned. It had something to do with luck, I suppose—you must, for example, have access to cars and education. But you must still start from a position of ignorance. You were not born knowing how to drive.
The assumption that you’re supposed to have already understood everything when you begin the lesson must come—I’m guessing—from the drill and repeat and review structure of their high school classes. If this is not true, I’m at a total loss. It really pains me to think that students believe they should already know how to do the things their college classes are teaching them and how horrible it must feel when they realize how unlucky they are.