“Just tell me what to do”

Seth Godin wrote today that:

People are just begging to be told what to do. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the biggest one is: "If you tell me what to do, the responsibility for the outcome is yours, not mine. I'm safe."

I think another big reason is that most people spent at least 12 years of their life being deeply socialized in the “just tell me what to do” model.

We know that schools strongly emphasize compliance in the name of order and discipline. We know that the fact-regurgitation model that still dominates schooling mostly leads to the student mentality of “Just tell me what to do to get a B,” rather than “Inspire me to follow my passions and interests and learn more about this on my own.” We shouldn’t be surprised when our graduates take that mentality with them into higher education and/or the workplace.

22 Responses to ““Just tell me what to do””

  1. “Just tell me what to do.” is the adult extenuation of, “Is that going to be on the test?”

    This issue was part of the underlying thinking behind what I was trying to get at in my post on summative assessment yesterday (http://is.gd/7MiM9). The testing culture we are in does not allow risk taking, it is a convergent learning culture, not a divergent one. Everything learned reduces down to a multiple choice or short answer test question for which there is no flexibility.

    Students who are not encouraged to risk take and internalize learning, will in the work world look to someone else to “tell them what to do.” We need a new culture that encourages beautiful failures and celebrates the success they lead to.

  2. Thank you for this post. I have no end of frustration when I see this behavior from some of my teacher peers. As you pointed out, we are socializing students to be compliant which, in my understanding, seems to be perpetuating a sense of helplessness and external validation. From the earliest years of kids’ lives we need to be helping them to find the passions and interests that inspire them to work hard, exploring, discovering and thinking along the path to adulthood. If this type of learning becomes organic, kids will grow into adults who can handle the “gray” area and make critical decisions. Now, how do we do this in the system that we have? That,is indeed the challenge.

  3. I see this behavior in early elem., though, so I’m not sure it’s all the product of schools. Could it possibly be innate?

  4. i see teachers who do this so as to remove any responsibility for their actions, and they wonder why the kids are this way.
    Most of our students are this way, but they want to get a D (“60% is passing, right?”). Even the small percentage that want good grades are similar, “tell me how I should answer” And we are a “good” school (Academically Excellent somehow), with “good” kids.
    They are so ingrained with this , they complain about inquiry/exploratory/labs.”You don’t teach us anything.” “You are not teaching” “You need to tell us the answer” “Tell me how to do it” (actually they mean “do it for me”. But on the other hand (besides all the research about retention through listening) they just do not listen to anything we say.

  5. I think that such generalizations – that we are “deeply socialized in the ‘just tell me what to do’ model” – are inaccurate, and unproductive. It’s very easy to say such things, and very easy to get people to agree with them. But that does not make them true. Very few of my teaching peers emphasize compliance or fact-regurgitation. Very few of my students are grade-grubbers, or want me “just tell them what to do to get a B”. If we teachers enter the classroom wearing such cynical glasses, guess what we are going to see?


  6. @Greg Thompson: If you haven’t seen them, you may like my convergent v. divergent thinking diagrams: http://bit.ly/a0PWTb. I’m off to read your post!

    @John Ranta: John, I’m REALLY glad that what I wrote isn’t true of you, your peers, and your students. Congratulations on creating a different kind of teaching-learning mentality where you work. Unfortunately, the evidence better supports my statement, not yours: http://bit.ly/blLBvW

  7. In a meeting last week with our grade level team “coaches” (also classroom teachers), I asked them to please help me (the building principal) keep a vibe on what’s going on in their grade levels, and if I get sucked away into some realm of the adminosphere for a few days and they feel as though they haven’t seen me (any principal can attest to the fact that yes, the adminosphere is real, and it is easy to get sucked into), to please let me know so I can make it a priority to be present for them.

    One teacher told me, “It is not my job to tell you to come into my classroom. You are always welcome there.” Well of COURSE I am always welcomed there… but I was asking this of them to help establish a more collaborative culture where they know that they should expect to see me, and if they don’t, it’s within their professional rights to let me know about it. Two-way communication. After explaining my line of thinking, she was still insistent that she couldn’t do this.

    So, with a smile, I delivered a directive insisting that I want her to do this for me. And she immediately said, “Fine, if you’re telling me to do it, I will.”

    So I began to think… as I embark on developing this collaborative culture in my building, does it begin with me issuing directives? Directing my teachers to collaborate in their PLCs? Directing them to share their team goals and action plans with me?

    It seems to me that directives are both something you want to reduce in a collaborative school culture (to be replaced with self-directed learning experiences for students, teachers, and admin) yet also are required to get the ball rolling, especially with some teachers who are content with the status quo.

  8. Some students get the big idea. I hosted an on-line survey for my students about grades and honor roll and got this comment- “Grades mean nothing. So many students cheat on homework, tests, and even final exams. Grades therefor do not truly reflect intellect in all individuals.”

  9. @Greg Thompson: wanted to read your post but tells me it has a wrong address.
    @John Ranta: agree with your generalization point.
    If the socialization in 12 years of schooling is the key to compliance socialization ,how is the history of mankind explained in regard to ‘wanting to be told what to do’ and jumping on the band wagon for such things at the French Revolution and going even further back when formalized education was not the norm.
    @Mark :Good point on asking is this an innate behavior.
    @Scott Thanks for the data. I have read it and it tells a lot about teaching practices. Your generalization that schools promote the ‘Tell me what to do’ mentallity is for the most part true. I would like include families, communities, religions, and governments. Always have and probably always will.

    Principalofchange: Thanks for showing that atudents can see the big picture even though they are being socialized into compliance during their school day…

  10. Yes. Directives need to happen in order for some staff to see/feel/hear a level of collaboration that is not even in their universe. I think DuFour said, “you can change someone’s behavior but you cannot change their beliefs.” Directives sometimes are necessary to change that behavior.

  11. Hi Tina,
    Here is the correct address. I think the “.” that attached itself to the address earlier is the culprit.


    Hope that works.

  12. @Scott – I appreciate all the data & studies you posted. They tell me (this may be a subtle or even meaningless difference) that it is not so much that students want to be told what to do, as it is that the teachers in these studies found it easier to lecture students than to engage them in other kinds of learning. I wonder if that is due to “socialized compliance” or lack of creativity or laziness or pedagogical inertia, or…something else?

    @Lyn – I think that if you want to create a collaborative culture you have to find a system for getting into classrooms that doesn’t depend on reminders from teachers. I understand the many ways that you (we) can get distracted by the urgent yet trivial, but don’t you risk sending the message to teachers that visiting them is not important to you if you need them to keep reminding you to do it?

  13. @John Ranta: I think we’re in concurrence. I do think it’s socialized into both students AND teachers. After a while, it becomes a circular, self-propagating, mutually-reinforcing system.

  14. Good schools and teachers and parents and communities plot their way through this issue skilfully. Schools are a key instrument of socialisation, as such learning to work and learn and play and think collaboratively is essential. This school aims to, ‘educate adolescents’ and to graduate ‘young adults’; ie increasing autonomy as they get closer to the end of Y12. The process is the key ‘mattter for judgement’.

    The degree to which this is done is of course a matter for broad and never ending discussion. Different cultures take different approaches; the Sydney Morning Herald’s Finance correspondent [“The East is Red”] has been discussing China thoughtfully in recent weeks. He is arguing that China’s economic future is being damaged because authoritarian/collaborative culture is limiting creativity and innovation.

  15. @Dean Shareski: Great post. Sorry I missed it before. Thanks for sharing!

    @Andrew FitzSimons: That’s pretty interesting. Right now I’m reading Futurecast by Robert Shapiro, which argues that China’s economic success has occurred because its authoritarian leadership has been able to initiate sweeping economic changes despite the accompanying gut-wrenching societal impacts. In contrast, India is moving much slower because of its less authoritarian, often messy democratic process. In other words, China’s only been able to move quickly BECAUSE it can get away with being so authoritarian. Every significant decision is made by a group of 9 people…

    It’s an excellent book, by the way!


  16. Thanks, John, I do have a system in place but maybe it could be better. I wasn’t looking for them to provide me with constant reminders to come into the room so much as I was asking the 3 team leaders I was meeting with to help me keep a pulse on the climate of their grade levels/hallways/situations. I think that is a fair request.

  17. I think all of this discussion is extremely valuable! An issue that I face is that when confronted with this behavior many teachers (dare I say almost all??) that I deal with become angry and defensive. How do you encourage teachers to face the fact that they are doing this, and ease them into change without awakening the monster within? A perfect example that I see in my state (Minnesota) is the Q Comp intitiative which allows teachers to set goals to be reached and this is tied to pay (I am not agreeing or disagreeing with the concept, just using it as an example). When faced with this, many teachers beg administrators to “just tell me what my goal should be”, “what SHOULD I be writing for a goal?”, etc.

  18. Hi Heidi,

    I think data can put an objective, rather than subjective, face on this. What kind of data could you collect that would open up some minds?

    Also check out Crucial Conversations (http://bit.ly/ap6iaZ) or Fierce Conversations (http://bit.ly/9oO3hd)!

  19. I agree with Seth’s observations for why others like to be told what to do. It is a way for others to abdicate responsibility for decisions. If they are being told what to do they have no responsibility for the outcome of decisions.

  20. I would like to point out that this is not necessarily a bad thing. With today’s flat organizations, management is pushing more responsibility down to lower levels of the organization than ever before. Many of these people simply don’t have the training to take on this level of responsibility.

    Imagine the master carpenter, a wizard with woodwork, suddenly being asked to mill his own lumber, make his own nails, negotiate with customers about materials, and manage a group of interns.

    He is GOOD at making cabinet. He SUCKS at all these other things.

    How do you best use his talents? Do you let him focus on making cabinets? Or do you insist that he do all these other things for which is is both ill-prepared and has no talent?

    This is why people say “just tell me what to do”. They have an innate sense of their strength, and they need someone else to point them in the right direction.

    Management today has been caught up in this idea of employee empowerment without realizing that some people simply don’t have the skills to be empowered. And there is nothing wrong with that.

  21. It’s true – “just tell me what to do” has been completely institutionalized and, consequently, inculcated. It takes re-educating students out of it to adopt the constructivist and PBL models that have proved to be so effective. I learned this when I turned my class into a PBL classroom, and once students had beome used to a whole new model, the results were extraordinary: http://www.edumusings.com/the-best-unit-ive-ever-taught-by-accident/

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