What's wrong with
with Engineering Prof. Elliot Soloway and
LSA Prof. Bruce Conforth
LSA Prof Bruce Conforth and
Engineering Prof Elliot Soloway met
at The Michigan Daily newsroom to
discuss this question. This is the first
in a series of bi-weekly features entitled
"Conversations,"bringing together two
unique individuals - often occupying
different campus spheres - to engage
Prof. Bruce Conforth: I com-
pletely reject the question, on at least
a two grounds. First of all, it's start-
ing with the assumption that there's
something wrong with students. And
secondly, it's based on a comparison.
What's wrong with students com-
pared to what? So I think it's a faulty
Prof. Elliot Soloway: I've seen
kids ten years ago. You've been here
for a while, right?
BC: Eleven years.
ES: Eleven years, I've been here
twenty. And some of the kids ten years
ago, I think were more risk-taking, at
least in the Engineering context. So I
agree that it's a weird question. But I
just feel that the kids today aren't tak-
ing the risks that they did ten years
ago. And I don't know why, butI had
the good fortune of having Larry
Page (Google co-founder) as a student
and Tony Fadell. He did the iPod; he
invented the iPod - not Steve Jobs.
And these kids and their peers, they
were pretty much risk-takers in terms
of building things, trying things and I
don't see that anymore.
BC: But is that the student's fault?
And that's why I raised my objec-
tion to the question at the beginning,
because I could say I see the same
thing... but we have to ask, if students
today are less risk takers, why are they
less risk-takers?Is itsomething inher-
ent in the students, or has something
changed in culture that has contribut-
ed to them becoming less risk-takers?
ES: I think maybe it's the culture,
as in these kids today are the result
of "No Child Left Behind." These are
the kids that went through that kind
of education that, in my mind, is very
drilled and memorized, and it's very
memorized and "keep the content" as
opposed to "invent."
ES: But we gotta do something. I
feel like I oweit to them. This is the
University of Michigan and for bet-
ter or worse, it is an elite place. This is
one of the special places ... so if we're
not going to produce the kids that are
going to be the next risk takers, the
next Larry Pages, then who is? And
I don't know how to make them do it.
BC: Well, I don't know if you can
make anyone do anything, but I
totally agree with you. And that is our
responsibility. I think teaching is a
sacred undertaking, and if you're not
going to walk into the classroom and
try and make that happen with your
students, then you probably shouldn't
be teaching in the first place.
ES: That's an amazing statement.
It's a sacred undertaking?
BC: I think so. How far into the
future will your influence go? How
much of a change in the world can you
make? If you just reach one of your
students in the entire history of your
teaching and my teaching, we could
reach one student that literally chang-
es the world.
BC: I think that you can teach any
subject in a way that it relates directly
to the student ... If you're not making
your classes about the students -
regardless of what you're teaching -
then you're failing as a teacher.
ES: It's all about them. It is about
them. It's right ... I mean, the stuff is
BC: That's the perfect way of put-
ting it. The stuff is the stuff, but the
class is ultimately about them, what
are they going to do with this.
ES: But we're more comfortable,
most ofus (teachers), with the stuff.
BC: Because the other part is tak-
ing a risk. And there yougo back to the
original statement. You said the stu-
dents aren't risk-takers, maybe we, as
teachers, need to be more risk-takers.
ES.That's good. That's good.We're
playing it safe, that's really right.
We're, teaching stuff and we're not
teaching aboutithem. It's a risk, you're
putting yourself out in a funny way.
And you don't want to do that, it's too
much of a risk. You're right, we're not
modeling risk-taking In the research
world, I feel like I'm modeling it more,
because I'll fail. But in the classroom
maybe we're not taking risks ... You
have to fail, or else you're not taking
enough of a risk.You can't be success-
ful all the time. Nobody's successful
all the time.
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