I have a life checklist. You know the one where you lay out your entire life and then check the boxes once you’ve accomplished it.
Get a 4.0 ❌
Get into PT School ✔
Complete a sports residency program ✔
Become a physical therapist ✔
Become a clinic director ❌
Marry an awesome man ✔
Become a mom ✔
Get my board certification ✔
Become a professor ✔
Get my PhD 🥺
Lists help ground my life. They provide structure to the chaos. I feel like I thrive when I am working on checking off an item on the list. Lists provide me with direction when I feel like I have none. They provide me with motivation, aspirations. They help me look back and see where I have come, and they help me look forward to see where I am going. Lists prevent me from missing things. In a life filled with so many things, it is easy to forget things. Writing things down and creating a list helps with recall and retention. Using an evaluation checklist when I was a new physical therapist provided me with a structure to prevent me from missing key information. If you haven’t got the message yet, I am going to come right out and say it, I LOVE LISTS!
Oh you knew a but was coming, right?
Lists have a dark side too. They create structure, but can create concrete walls too. Living within lists can prevent you from experiencing curiosity and innovation. The structure of lists sometimes actually does cause you to miss things. You may not miss the things on your list, but what if the thing to take you to the next level isn’t on your list? What if you aren’t aware there is something that should be on your list that would be beneficial for your growth and learning? Having a list to rigidly live by can prevent you from experiencing the organic development of opportunities, ideas, and collaboration. Lists can prevent you from thinking outside the box because they don’t always provide you a way to wonder, to be curious.
I’ve experienced this first hand with my first year DPT students. During my second year teaching, I saw our students really struggling with putting all the puzzle pieces of evaluation together. During practical exams our students would miss important screening items or special tests because they didn’t have a systematic flow of their evaluation. So, I thought I could help, I could fix it. So I created the diagnostic strategy form. It is a one-page form that has separate boxes for each part of the examination. All a student has to do is fill out this form to be sure they don’t miss anything. It has been game changer for our students. Sure they still miss things here and there, but not near as much as before. They have a better understanding of flow and sequence. The list has allowed them to grow quickly in so many ways.
But, I wonder if the diagnostic strategy form is actually a hinderance too? Does it prevent students from problem solving their own methods? Does it prevent problem solving all together? Do they live only in the boxes and are held to those options only? Did my passion for solving a problem for them actually hinder their learning?
I don’t have the answers to these questions yet. I struggle thinking about the answers to those questions. What if the answer is yes? What if my passion for helping others actually hinders their ability to help themselves? And I think that is where I find my answer. It is a balance. Teaching people to do anything is a balance. Just like when your dad holds on to the bike seat when you are learning to ride a bike, creating structure early for your students can be just the help they need to balance their bike. But eventually dad has to take his hands off your bike seat and you have to do it on your own. You have the parameters of bike riding and balancing the bike, but at that moment you have to make it your own. I think that is our job as educators, we get to build a structure for students to start from, but then we have to teach them how to live outside the confines of the structure. We have to teach them how to problem solve and think critically. And then we need to give them the room to crash. We just got to get out of the way.
I’m reminded of a study I read where the researcher looked at what would happen if a teacher provided a clear structure for an experiment and then compared that to a clear structure with a twist. The experiment for the students was called the dancing raisins experiment. Their job was to mix baking soda, water and vinegar in a glass and then add raisins to it to see what happens. The baking soda and vinegar react with each other making CO2 bubbles which then attach to the rough edges of the raisins. Those CO2 bubbles create enough lift that eventually the raisins float to the top and then fall back down once the air bubble breaks the surface. Hence the dancing raisins. After the activity was complete in one group of students the teacher asked the students, “I wonder what would happen if we dropped one of the Skittles into the liquid instead of a raisin?” In the other group of students, she simply said she was going to clean up the area a bit and then organized the other potential drop items over to the side. In both cases, she then explained she needed to leave the room for a few minutes, but to feel free to do whatever they wanted to do while they were waiting.
In the group where the teacher sparked the question, “I wonder…” the students began to interact with the experiment in various ways. They added Skittles and other items into the liquid. In the group where the students saw her only tidy up, they were more likely to do nothing. In both cases the teacher demonstrated a structure of an experiment, but in the first group she gave permission to the students to work outside the confines of the experiment. She demonstrated a process, but then she got out of the way.
What if solving problems for other people actually creates a whole new set of problems? What if we are robbing that person of the chance to learn? What do you think?