What are our students to us?
Our students are not our children, and they are certainly not our customers. Defining our relationship with them will help us think about the purpose and nature of university education and create a better outcome for all.
Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself
They come through you but not from you
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you
You may give them your love but not your thoughts
For they have their own thoughts
You may house their bodies but not their souls
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams
You may strive to be like them
But seek not to make them like you
For life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday
From “On Children” (‘The Prophet’, 1923) by Kahlil Gibran
The poem “On Children” by the Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran moves me every time I read it. And I know it moves other parents, too. I have read it at welcome events for international students and their parents when they have come to drop them off. I would always see some parents wipe away tears, and I understood exactly why. The notion that our children are not ultimately ours, and that their futures can never be accessed by us, is so true, yet we need to dig deep to fully accept that fact. Perhaps the most difficult, but most important lesson to implement in practice, is the admonition not to try make our children be like us.
I often think of Gibran when I contemplate what our students are to us, as university teachers and educators. If our real children are not ultimately our children, our students certainly are not. They develop thoughts that are vastly different from the ones we developed when we were students, and also from the ones we have since thought. They will live and work in a world that we cannot imagine, much like we ourselves live and work in a world that our educators could not have conceived of.
“Students, whether or not they are paying a fee, will have a different, much better learning experience when they are more actively engaged with their teaching.”
I don’t believe our students are our customers either. Customers are paying for a well-defined product that delivers a well-defined outcome. The more progressive and innovative we are in our teaching, the less our students will be treated and seen as consumers. Students, whether or not they are paying a fee, will have a different, much better learning experience when they are more actively engaged with their teaching. Customers can be passive and may still be demanding the defined product, since the quality of it is independent of them. Students, on the other hand, change the very nature of their education by their interaction with their teachers.
But if you really put me on the spot and forced me to choose between seeing our students as our children, or as our customers, I would much prefer to see them as our children, although it’s a far from perfect descriptor. There are some parallels, although that isn’t at all to infantilise them. They need to be treated as the adults they are. But they do deserve our care, and the sense they are being nurtured. They deserve our protection, and they deserve to feel safe with us. In the second part of Gibran’s poem, he likens children to arrows and parents to bows. I can easily see the analogy with university teachers and students. But our students are not our children, not even in the way Gibran meant. So what are they then?
“I firmly believe the main purpose of university education is to prepare students well for the workplace of the future, so they can find their place as global citizens with a meaningful contribution to make in an ever-changing world.”
Before we can know what our students are to us, we perhaps first need to answer the question: what is a university education for? I firmly believe the main purpose of university education is to prepare students well for the workplace of the future, so they can find their place as global citizens with a meaningful contribution to make in an ever-changing world. This means that, rather than teaching them only contemporary facts and concepts, we should equip them with the skills to go beyond what we can teach them today. We need to show them how successful innovators have arrived at present-day solutions, so they can apply that way of thinking and acting to tomorrow’s, as yet unknown problems. Our students deserve to learn about the uncertainly of life, about the fact that making mistakes is necessary for learning, and that often there is not one right answer to a complicated problem.
Perhaps most of all, they need to learn that, as educators, we ourselves are often lost and searching, and that we are not superior to them, just more experienced in some domains. The more we can introduce the messiness of real work, the beauty of working together to solve seemingly intractable problems, and the pleasure that comes from contributing to other people’s happiness and success, the better they will do after graduation.
“In an interactive setting, the opportunity for students to become our teachers is not difficult to see.”
If we do that well, the model of active learning will become the one to pursue, with its focus on working together, on co-creating education with our students, and on taking them seriously and appreciating their insights, vision, and the wisdom that comes from their unique lived experiences. Incidentally, this is also evidence-based and leads to better learning outcomes. In this model, learning only for grades, learning in order to compete with fellow students, learning only for the diploma, quickly disappears. There is also emerging evidence that students who have a sense of higher purpose for their learning are more satisfied with it.
In an interactive setting, the opportunity for students to become our teachers is not difficult to see. They can inspire us to change our perspective on what we discuss in the classroom, and they can inspire the very research we are doing. Even if we may not always be ready, students increasingly ask for multidisciplinary teaching and education focused on solving global challenges. We should heed their requests.
So, to return to the original question – what are our students to us? – I think the answer is that they are our partners. They are valued, equal members of a community that seeks to change the world through finding new solutions to the many problems it faces. All teachers know that the true pleasure they get from teaching is very selfless, and centred on giving students their best future and helping them find their place in the world. And perhaps it is therefore not far-fetched to believe that our students, as our partners, are, in the words of Gibran, indeed the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.