The defining question.

There has been a lot going on for me recently. A lot of thinking, a lot of work and an amount of getting involved in things because my students trust me and will come to me to ask questions, which sometimes puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to juggle my accommodation for the different approaches of my colleagues and my own beliefs, as well as acting in everyone’s best interests. I’m not going to go into details but I think that I can summarise my position on everything, as an educator, by phrasing it in one question.

Is this course of action to the student’s benefit?

I mean, that’s it, isn’t it? If the job is educating students and developing the citizens of tomorrow, then everything that we do should be to the benefit of the student and/or future graduate. But it’s never simple, is it, because the utilitarian calculus to derive benefit quickly becomes complicated when we consider the effect of institutional reputation or perception on the future benefit to the student. But maybe that’s over thinking things (gasp, I hear regular readers cry). I’m not sure I know how to guide student behaviour to raise my University’s ranking in various measures – but I do know how to guide student behaviour to reduce the number of silly or thoughtless things they do, to enhance their learning and to help them engage. Maybe the simple question is the best? Will the actions I take today improve my students’ knowledge or enhance their capacity to learn? Have I avoided wasting their time doing something that we do because we have always done it, rather than giving them something to do because it is what we should be doing? Am I always considering the benefit to the largest group of students, while considering the needs of the individual?

Every time I see a system that has a fixed measure of success, people optimise for it. If it’s maximum profit, people maximise profit. If it’s minimum space, people cut their space. Guidelines help a lot in working out which course of action to take: when faced with a choice between A and B, choose the option that maximises your objective. This even works without a strong vision of the future, which is good because I’m not sure we have a clear enough view of the long path to graduation to really be specific about this. There is always a risk that people will get the assessment of benefit wrong, which can lead to soft marking or lax standards, but I’m not a believer that post hoc harshness is the solution to inherited laxity from another system (especially where that may be a perception that’s not grounded in reality). Looking at all of my actions in terms of a real benefit, to the student, to their community, to our equality standards, to our society – that shines a bright light on what we do so we can clearly see what we’re doing and, if it requires change, illuminates the path to change.

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