The Golden Rule doesn’t apply to teaching

October 21, 2012
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(This article was originally published at Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Problems with the Golden Rule

The Golden rule is fundamental to most human cultures.

It reads, approximately, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

It sounds good at first glance, and I hesitate to argue with the wisdom of God and most cultures but I propose that the Golden Rule fails if applied mechanistically.

I’ll explain with some examples, and show why this is important in teaching, especially subjects like statistics and operations research.

Not long after after we were married, my husband was lying sick in bed. When I am sick I tend to get lonely, so I like someone to sit with me, or read to me, or visit at least occasionally. So I did that. A while later I was sick, and Mark didn’t come near me, leaving me to myself and my misery. I was lonely and a bit hurt. At birthdays I would give him caramello and dairy milk chocolate, and he would give me almond and peanut chocolate. The problem was that Mark liked to be left in peace when he was sick, so felt that was the best way to help me (and wished I would go away!) and I don’t like nut chocolate any more than he likes caramello. The problem was that we were doing for each other EXACTLY what we would like to be done for us.

Generally the people who are teachers succeeded, and enjoyed being taught. The teaching methods they espouse worked for them so they do unto others as they were done unto. The problem is that most teachers of statistics and operations research are not like most of our students. For instance I loved mathematics at school. The teaching method of giving pupils notes to copy off the board, followed by exercises from the textbook worked just fine for me. I usually understood it all, and had the confidence to persist or ask if I didn’t. I liked getting things right. So using the Golden Rule at a mechanistic level would suggest that I should do this for my students. But for many of our students – dare I say all – this isn’t really the best way to proceed.

In a response to my previous post one person commented that they were shy and didn’t like small groups. So he would not like to teach that way. I hated group work for other reasons, so would seldom use it, if I were just trying to give the students what I would want. However some students, particularly ones from more community-focussed cultures prefer to work in groups rather than stand out from the crowd.

The Golden Rule needs to be applied at a higher level than a mechanistic “this is what what works for me, therefore I will do the same for other people”.

I think we do understand this really, otherwise there would be more hardware stores advertising gifts for Mothers’ Day and jewellery stores with gifts for Fathers’ Day.

The point is not that we do unto others exactly as we would like them to do unto us, down to the details. Rather we would like people to care enough to work out (or ask) what we would like, and then do that, rather than assuming that what works for them works for us. Maybe we should rephrase the Golden Rule to be “Do unto others as you would others do unto you if you were them.”

Do unto others as you would others do unto you if you were them.

Eventually Mark and I worked out what was going on and modified our behaviour. I leave him alone when he is sick and he checks up on me from time to time. I buy him nut chocolate and he buys me Caramello. (Or tropical fruit if I am on Weight Watchers)

Sometimes it can be very difficult to find out what it is that people want. As a parent I had two children who could not have been much less like me. They don’t even resemble me in looks, except for my height. Rules and methods that worked for me just did not work for them. We had to think really hard and laterally to try to put ourselves in their place

People on the autistic spectrum struggle enormously with this principle. Many of them would rather not talk to people unless they have to, and then want to talk about what interests them, such as the history of Sesame Street, or trains, or cross-channel ferries. They would like people to talk to them about these things, so even if they can work out the Golden Rule, it would mean that other people must also want to talk about that.

We need to have enough imagination and will to put ourselves in their position and try to give them what they want. We need to research and share ideas to better understand what it is that others want to help them to learn.

The Golden Rule and nutrition

But even then, what people think they want, and what they really need, can be poles apart. This is clearly evident with many children’s eating choices. Given the choice they may avoid balanced nutrition as much as possible, with less than desirable outcomes. (I’ve read theories that children left to themselves will choose a balanced diet, but I’m sceptical.) Conscientious parents do NOT obey the Golden Rule and treat the children as they would like to be treated, giving them chocolate and chips at every mean, but rather they try to make sure the children  have a balanced diet to help them grow strong. One of my sons once thanked me for not giving him everything he wanted. He had reached the age when he realised that wants may not be for what we need.

Some students would like us to show them every step of a process so that they do not need to struggle and make the effort to learn. They feel that exploring and learning for themselves is a waste of time. At times some students actually do need that, to have a lot of “scaffolding” to help them to learn how to learn, and to gain confidence in their ability. But the scaffolding needs to be gradually removed so that they then become independent learners.

So now we modify the Golden Rule to:

“Do unto others as you would others do unto you if you were them and you had perfect understanding of consequences.”

So really, how the Golden Rule applies to teaching is that we need to do unto our students the best that we can to help them achieve their potential, bearing in mind their individual characteristics, abilities and tendencies. Isn’t that what we would like other people to do for us?

Please comment on the article here: Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research

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