Milgram, Zimbardo, Asch & Education

In July, 1961, Stanley Milgram began conducting his first experiment into obedience. The findings were sensational – between 61 and 66% of all participants, regardless of the time or place or study were prepared to inflict fatal shocks to another participant when they were told to (I have never found this that unusual – for centuries we’ve had soldiers in armies prepared to kill another person when they are told to). People obey.

In August, 1971, Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment. The study was cut short when it was found that the participants readily identified with their place in the artificial society. People are impressionable and obedient.

In 1951, Solomon Asch began his studies into conformity within a group. Of the participants who were tested, 75% reported that a line that was clearly shorter than two others was the longest line on a slide when all of the other participants in the group reported it before them. People conform to group thinking.

In February, 2014 these three findings form the backbone of the educational programmes in higher education. Students are obedient, want to fit in, and are willing to conform to what the other members of their group think.

We know that universities tout self-directed learning as a core tenant of their graduates. However, self directed learning doesn’t happen in the “I’ll tell you something, and you repeat it back to me in three months” model of dependent learning that is the norm in HE today, or as George Siemens puts it “When students take a formal course, success is measured by how well they internalize (whatever that means) and repeat back to us what we told them.” This kind of learning is built on a foundation of obedience and conformity. This is called dependent learning, and it is the bulk of todays learning in HE.

The educational world isn’t even embarrassed by this (at least not in primary school). My daughter recently went to a parent teacher evening where she was told that my three year old grandson was finally beginning to learn one of the central components of education: conformity (you can imagine my relief).

Conformity and obedience in education is expected. The entire premise of a module or class beginning and ending on a particular date, with assignments due on particular dates, and learning tightly scheduled and planned well in advance requires obedience and conformity.
Never mind that creativity, critical evaluation, metacognition and most other higher order thinking skills are stifled by conformity. When I have to produce a detailed marking criteria prior to the assessment even being set, then room for creativity and surprise is gone.

We don’t expect our students to surprise us, and they regularly don’t.

In a high level meeting (the University Teaching and Learning Committee) I was at last year, there was serious discussion (I lost in the end) about having regulated penalties for exceeding word limits for student work (read conformity). One of those present said that he didn’t want to read War and Peace every time he marked an assignment, to which I asked, …what if your student actually produced War and Peace? To which the assembly essentially laughed and said Our students? Not in this life!

Our students are good at obedience and conformity. Fitting in is essential for success. Being exactly like everyone else is the key to success – at least for getting a degree.

I guess that when the institutions producing graduates are built on the foundations of conformity, obedience and fitting in, that is the kind of graduate that will be produced. I guess, on that measure, we are quite successful as a sector.

How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?

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