I-Chant A. Chiang
In Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, she describes episodes in her life with raw, intimate details, the kind that one would be nervous to reveal to a therapist. Through these personal stories of sexual abuse, devastating grief, battles with substance abuse, and extreme financial hardship, Strayed, using her pseudonym, “Sugar,” shows compassion to those seeking her advice by honoring the flaws in her past and encouraging others to do the same.
This book is featured in my Self, Culture, and Society class, a social psychology class at Quest University Canada that explores how we shape and are shaped by our surroundings and context. We grapple with dense theories of the self by sociologists, such as Erving Goffman and George Herbert Mead, as well as psychologists, such as Hazel Markus and Carol Dweck. And we read Strayed’s book of advice in its entirety.
Each time I teach this class, we discuss why I assign this reading alongside theoretical heavyweights. The assignment that is paired with this reading is as follows: Under principles of anonymity and confidentiality, write a letter to Sugar seeking advice about something, anything in your life; the letter will be randomly redistributed to another classmate, and then each of you will write a response, as Sugar, back to the advice seeker.
Because the university is on the block plan, students are in a course for only three-and-a-half weeks. This time frame means the original letter goes out on the second day of class to virtual strangers, and the response letter comes back three weeks later when the students are only slightly more acquainted. Each time I set this assignment, I brace myself for the less serious student who might ask how to organize her closet or for the insensitive student who tells the “unlucky in love” that it is his or her own fault for being unlovable. It never happens.
The letters that the students write come directly from their soul, deep despondency about a death of a parent or secret ambitions to go on adventurous pursuits away from traditional paths. The letters that keep me up at night are the ones about loneliness and the doubts about self-worth. I root for the ones that palpitate with young love. Similarly, the responses giving advice are always thoughtful, heartfelt, and caring.
To participate in this assignment, students take enormous emotional risk. But this is just one of many kinds of risk that we see students take regularly at Quest University Canada. We are comfortable asking them to take risks because we take risks ourselves, frequently in our teaching. After all, there is no path to innovation without risk. Quest prides itself on its innovative education in which risk-taking is not only accepted but expected. Several features of our curriculum support this culture.
Our block plan allows a faculty member to teach classes multiple times in one year. Because the courses are taught serially instead of in parallel, as in a semester system, often we can teach the same course back to back. This repetition not only allows for the ability to quickly tweak something that did not go well in the previous block, but it also allows for immediate feedback on a new activity or assignment over several courses. In addition, if instructors are teaching the same course multiple times in a row, they want to keep the class fresh for themselves, so they are constantly trying new things. This rapid feedback loop allows for ample opportunity to try again.
The lack of tenure for Quest faculty members also fosters innovation. We protect academic freedom and have a series of contracts that increase in term length, up to six years. To renew our contracts, we undergo a peer evaluation in which classroom observations and lengthy reflections demand evidence of continual self-improvement. Even the best professors at Quest are expected to report on their risks, both successful and failed.
The culture of sharing teaching methods is pervasive at Quest and is crucial for teaching innovation. Teaching triads match up faculty members across different disciplines and experience levels, and triad members provide support and inspiration for each other’s teaching. Classroom observations are commonplace, and monthly pedagogy discussion groups provide a space for instructors to brainstorm new ideas or ways to solve teaching puzzles.
Yet none of these teaching techniques matter if there are not willing students to go along with the experiment. By and large, Quest students are risk-takers, as one must be at a university where students design their own curricula. Because Quest has neither majors nor departments, students work with faculty to design a question and curriculum that bring together courses from a variety of fields.
What allows some students to be more willing to take risks than others? Our faculty identified certain ingredients that, when fostered throughout their K–12 schooling, encourage this mindset.
Risk-taking students are those who love to learn for learning’s sake. When students love to learn, they are more willing to trust the teacher to lead them to the next idea. Any student can love to learn, given the right circumstances to develop intrinsic motivation. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s self-determination theory posits that intrinsic motivation balances autonomy (the freedom to choose), competence (mastery of skills), and relatedness (a sense of belonging with others). Increasing intrinsic motivation for learning increases the likelihood of taking risks to pursue learning.
A school that lets students choose their classes, topics for their assignments, or where they sit in the classroom increases student autonomy. Offering students some choices allows them to become interested and engaged in their own learning. By removing pressure or controlling elements, such as rules about what a student must or should do, teachers implicitly empower students’ perception of freedom.
Praising the choice to learn supports feelings of autonomy as well as feelings of competence. Giving students meaningful, specific feedback is a way to reward them for mastering competencies. Positive feedback enhances the sense of mastery and gives students the confidence that they can rise to a new challenge.
Subtle cues in the environment will influence students’ sense of belonging. Categories of identity, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and physical ability, are quick ways that people notice if they belong in a certain space or not. By creating active learning spaces, these barriers can be broken down. Working spaces that allow students to witness similar struggles on homework and activities can reveal the equity in encountering difficult problems.
Balancing these three psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom, schools can increase motivation for learning, which in turn increases the likelihood of risk-taking. Schools that provide supportive environments for students to fail with a safety net will feed the students’ curiosity and thirst for learning. As primary and secondary schools look more to universities for guidance and research on how to innovate in the classroom, the student experience becomes more aligned on a continuum. Going from primary to secondary to post-secondary with the same principles at the core smooths the path for students as they transition from one institution to another.
Modeling the behavior for students also sets expectations that continued lifelong learning is desirable. I always write a letter to Sugar to put into the mix with the other letters that the students write. I write about personal struggles with my parents, my partner, and my friends in a veiled way to blend in with the student voice. I often receive sound advice. In the last class, we read the letters and their responses aloud. We cry together as we hear about each other’s sorrows and challenges; we laugh and smile at the kind words of encouragement and hope. We take a leap of faith that our vulnerabilities on display will not betray us, and this emotional risk translates into trust being built between students, into deeper learning for the entire class.