Helicopter Teaching and the Challenge of Mythrules

In an era of hyper-focus on students’ academic performance, is it possible that schoolwork is actually too easy? I recognize that this might seem a strange question, given how much we hear of stressed-out students, slogging through hours of homework and blizzards of standardized tests. If anything, school is too hard, right?

And yet.

Consider for a moment those helicopter parents we often read about: parents micromanaging homework and rushing in to rescue children from the first sign of struggle. The problems with helicopter parenting are well-documented: by protecting kids from challenges, parents deprive them of the chance to learn from their mistakes and to develop resilience. But less is said about how we teachers sometimes fall prey to the same impulses. In my own teaching, when I really want students to perform well, I do a lot of heavy lifting myself: writing examples for students to imitate, creating outlines and guidelines, giving overly-directive feedback on drafts. In these moments, have I become a helicopter teacher, vacuuming necessary challenges from my classroom in order to ensure “success”?

I direct the undergraduate writing program at my institution, so I spend a fair amount of time talking to teachers and looking at course materials. What I sometimes see in teachers’ assignments are “accident-proof” sets of directions for students to follow. These assignments aim to contain ambiguity and to forestall questions and confusion. They try to head off misinterpretation, and to direct students toward success. But the more teachers work to accident-proof assignments, the more assignments become mired in what Edward Schuster calls “mythrules” – templates, formulas, recipes, guidelines. Mythrules are directives whose original purposes are often lost on students and which, as a result, are often perceived as arbitrary rules they must follow. For example, writing teachers often tell students that their assignments must be “at least five pages” or “between 5 and 7 pages.” We know, although we aren’t always explicit about it, that shorter drafts will lack analytic depth, and so we attempt to shield students from that failure by offering them a rule: “all essays must be at least five pages long.” As Kenneth Lindblom summarizes, mythrules are about defense: defense against assessments, against confusion and trial and error, against failure. With mythrules in place, students can succeed at any assignment, right? All they have to do is follow our instructions.

Mythrules may be well-intended, but make no mistake about how problematic they are. An artifact of helicopter teaching, mythrules smooth the way for students, simplify what is complicated, provide neat solutions to messy intellectual problems. They also contribute to student disengagement. Students perceive mythrules as arbitrary, even meaningless, and hence mythrules encourage students to “do school,” to go through the motions without really learning: “I follow the assignment because otherwise the teacher will grade you down,” one student told me. “If they want five sources, or a PIE paragraph, or whatever, just do that. Then everybody’s happy. It makes writing a lot easier.”

I recently watched a teacher take her students through every step of the process of setting up a reading response journal. These step-by-step instructions were necessary, the teacher told me: “If I don’t explain how to do it, I’ll get a lot of questions, and confusion.” Having been a journal writer for most of my life, I can tell you that confusion is fairly central to the process. If you don’t wade into the messy parts of your thinking and raise questions you don’t know the answers to, your journal won’t be of much value. This respect for intellectual messiness is true for the process of setting up the journal, as well as for the journal’s content. Indeed, if we walk students through every step of creating the journal (what kind of notebook, what sort of margins, how many words per entry, double-spaced, type-written or inked) we send a strong message about journaling and about learning in general: namely that it is a direction-following game, that the answers reside with the teacher, who will walk you through the steps to the puzzle until you arrive at the right answer.

Educator Gary Stager says that assignments should be no bigger than what can fit on a sticky note. Most of the teachers I know would not agree. Indeed, research shows that carefully designed assignments are critical to student success. And let’s be clear: Stager is not suggesting that teachers hand out hastily scrawled generalities – “analyze Hamlet” –and then sit back as students miraculously teach themselves Shakespeare.

But here’s the thing: what if our goal isn’t always the completion of one successful assignment after another? It’s true that when you give a detailed assignment that explains where the thesis should go, how many sources to cite, and what kind of paragraphs to use, you will get a more polished essay. And it’s true that, conversely, when you give an open-ended assignment with room for interpretation, you will get confusion, and, in many cases, anxiety from students who are used to having problems laid out in orderly steps for them to solve. You will get a less polished final product, and you will get many failed attempts. But you might also get something else: intellectual growth.

The challenge is to find that balance between encouraging students to wrestle with complexity, and providing enough context so that students can find a way in to the complexity. This is a perennial problem for educators: when to guide, and when to encourage exploration. Paradoxically, too much direction and too little can stifle student engagement.

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s notion of “essential questions” helps me carve out middle ground. Essential questions are a way to organize student learning. Thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, essential questions require higher-order thinking and point students toward important, transferable ideas. They move instruction from “how to” to “what if” and “why?” — from skills (and mythrules) to deep understanding. For Grant and McTighe, it’s not a balance between teacher-direction and student exploration. Exploration clearly plays a more important role. But framing one’s teaching around essential questions helps me see how to provide direction when necessary, and how to do so in a way that rises above mythrule and into real understanding.

Following Wiggins and McTighe, I’ve tried to turn mythrules into inquiry questions. Rather than: “your essay should be five double-spaced pages,” I ask “how long should your essay be to accomplish your goals?” Rather than: you need at least six outside sources,” I ask “how many sources will you need to convince your audience?” This simple change seems to me to have potential for subject areas beyond my own. In math: rather than a grading scale, ask students how many questions they believe they need to get right in order to feel they’ve mastered a particular skill. In biology, rather than: “your lab report must include drawings of your observations and a graph,” how about: what do you need to include in your lab report so that others can understand your process and your results?

So, teachers, how do you avoid being a helicopter in the classroom? How do you ensure that your teaching embraces rather than tries to solve complexity for students? How do you combat students’ perceptions of mythrules? Do your assignments fit on post-its? Write me at jstrainor@gmail.com. I’ll respond to your ideas in my next post.

Jennifer Seibel Trainor is the author of “Rethinking Racism,” (Southern Illinois University Press), as well as several essays on education. She teaches in the English department at San Francisco State University, and lives with her family in the SF Bay Area.

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