Dear Obstinate Learners

Sean Astin and Kevin Bacon starred in a film back in the late 80s titled White Water Summer. What starts as a rather innocent summer camping trip meant to help shape a few young men’s outdoor survival skills while teaching important life lessons, turns into a battle of wills. Alan, a teen more focused on sports, computers, and isn’t entirely excited about “roughing it” begins to butt heads with Vic, the lone adult leader of this wilderness adventure. Alan, played by Sean Astin, tries to use his wits and crafts several “smarter” ways of getting things done in the great outdoors, one of the more powerful scenes being his creation of a fishing trap, catching a horde of fish for dinner. Vic, the “do it the right way” leader, admonishes Alan for using his brains rather than his brawn, and after berating him in front of the other campers, he forces Alan to gut all of the fish himself (something Alan doesn’t seem excited about), and leaves him on a small island in the middle of the lake, telling him to signal when he’s done. Alan of course, becomes disgusted, and not only doesn’t signal that he’s finished, but sleeps outside in the rain just to spite Vic’s harsh “life lesson”. The battle between the two only escalates from there, to the point where Vic severely injures himself while trying to teach Alan another lesson. It then turns to Alan to see the entire troop safely down the mountain, using a mix of both Vic’s survival skills and Alan’s ingenuity.

Other than being a rather rudimentary and rushed description of the scene, it’s an excellent metaphor for how I see myself as a learner. It’s not that I want to be obstinate, and purposefully look for ways to “circumvent” what it is that any of my teachers have asked me to do (I asked my 5th grade teacher if I could dress up as an actual flag-pole sitter for our class musical about the roaring 20s rather than dress in a white shirt with a bow tie). I’ve recognized over my 33 years on this planet that I have a fierce independent streak within me, and quite often it shows itself in the learning environment. I want to learn “my way”, reflect upon and build new knowledge in ways that make sense to me, whether they mesh with a given assignment or not, and I’ve butted heads a couple of times with instructors who don’t seem to “get” that what I’m doing is not only helping me learn, but doing so in a much more personal and meaningful way than the assignment they’ve doled out.

That’s not to say that I don’t get along well with my teachers and colleagues, but when your 7th grade science teacher yells out across the room as class is being dismissed, “that’s another nail in the coffin, Rimes” it makes you wonder whether or not you should dial back just how independent you are.

So as I write this letter to any other obstinate learners out there, I say strike a balance! Work with your teacher, but just don’t accept assignments and tasks given to you by your teacher as the simple tasks they may be, completing them without question. Find ways that you can make some of them your own; find ways to inject your own personality into them. Case in point; this letter was supposed to be written as a letter home from camp. Not an actual camp that Alan had to endure under Vic’s leadership, but a virtual one. I’m helping out as a “Camp Counselor” for ds106’s Camp Magic Macguffin for the next 9 weeks (go bunk 5!), and while I was supposed to write this letter to those “back home”, I choose to write it instead as a reflection for those that might struggle with either obstinate learners, or for those that might be obstinate learners themselves. Teachers, please find ways to let your students add their own personality into projects or regular assignments. You might not always get the best academic work out of them, but they’ll be much more engaged in what they’re doing, and the good will you’ll earn usually pays off later when you have to ask them to complete a particular assignment the ways it’s written (because eventually they have to conform at least a bit).

So to all you obstinate learners out there, develop good relationships with your teachers, whether you want to or not. Those relationships will help you in the future. And teachers of obstinate learners, try to find ways to mingle what you need your students to accomplish, with how they want to accomplish it.

Sincerely, Ben

P.S. Camp is great! I already have several baskets woven and more leather punched money pouches that I have pockets!


  1. In ds106 I am sure you know that Camp Magic Macguffin is the place for welcoming obstinate learners, so bring it on and we wont make you clean fish. I really hope you keep moving this message to our students, and show them Alan’s way (nice nice)

    1. I’m feeling confident that all the campers in my bunk already get this, seeing as we’re the open online students. I would hope that those willing to volunteer their time and talents to learn without any other credit or achievement than the learning itself are those type of obstinate learners looking to make sense of the world in ways that make sense to them.

  2. You make such a great point! Doing whatever we need to do to make our own learning experience meaningful should be encouraged and embraced. A question though: with the increase in e-learning, making those connections with teachers can be more difficult. How do you recommend overcoming that barrier for those of us who may prefer to push the limits a little?

    1. Honestly, I’m still new to the “formal” side of e-learning (ANGEL, Blackboard, etc.), but from what I gather you have to hack it just like you would the classroom. Since the lack of face to face connections makes learning a drag for me online, I supplement with Twitter and other social media heavily for the slightly less than asynchronous communication.

      I have had a lot of fun doing Google+ hangouts though, and then rebroadcasting them for later consumption by students that couldn’t make it. My recommendation would be to find as many ways to bring video conferencing into the forefront of your e-learning tools to ensure you ahve some decent “face time”.

  3. While I see your point, I’ll set my agreement aside for a moment to play teacher/camp counselor from Dante’s first level of Hell.

    Obstinate learner was a great title! Because, different learning modalities aside, the reality for which I prepare my students is that they have to follow directions from a boss they don’t like or from incompetent middle management or from the ornery public, all with a smile on their face. Learning to let your ego take a back seat is a life skill in our current economy where interpersonal skills and Emotional Quotient are the new buzz words.
    Learning to complete work that may seem tedious or pointless is a way that my students can get dollars in their pockets and food on the table in the reality of the life they are living. Often I hear, “You do you, Ima do me!” This attitude is a great way to practice for the next level of service in the criminal justice institutions. Here’s another classic movie with a great metaphore: Cool Hand Luke. (spoiler alert: go watch the whole movie before reading this last sentence!) Sometimes nothing is a cool hand, but that turtle kept fighting even when it was already dead.
    Going along to get along is a life skill that should not be cast aside, even with the best excuse ever: I learn differently!

    Where is the end of this slippery slope of assignment creep? Fist I have to let Rimes dress up like a tree and give him credit for creative writing, and then we’re (as an education institution) giving high school diplomas for students who “just weren’t feeling it” on 80 out of 180 days? What is this, UC Santa Cruz? (Banana Slugs indeed!) Why not let the teaching professional decide what the appropriate assessment for skill mastery is and then give the appropriate level of professional respect to the teacher rather than let the inmates run the assylum. Should my course syllabus say “100 point final project of the student’s choosing if he or she is feeling it that day”?

    I’m getting snarky, but seriously, I didn’t want to use APA style on my master’s thesis. Should I have petitioned the board of regents to allow a change in format just for me? Isn’t there a value to having every high school diploma mean the same thing (i.e. similar assignment styles and competencies) and every master’s thesis is in a common format for simple comparison. The common style of my thesis makes it easy to see just how much or little effort I put into the composition.

    I’ve prattled on, but I’m interested in hearing any feed back, as long as it’s in current MLA style and contains a clear, consistent tone and focus.

    BTW: That was my second favorite science teacher back in 7th grade.


    1. I’ve got your MLA style right here! 😀

      You raise a lot of really great points, and for those I can only reference my closing remarks from the original post; it’s important to form relationships, even if it is with someone whom you might dislike or often butt heads. When you look at the work force, you see a lot of examples of people that aren’t always in agreement (or downright argumentative for a variety of reasons), but those companies can still thrive if there’s a level of understanding among the workers.

      If you take Steve Jobs as an example (he may be overused so my apologies), he exemplifies the obstinate learner. However, in many of the contentious relationships he had with others, there were many conversations had over long walks, retreats, and dinners. He took time to really know the people he was working closely with on a level beyond just co-workers, and even though he often clashed with many of them, they had a firm foundation upon which to defer once the clashes were over.

      I understand that it isn’t always the case for many workers, especially those in low paying service industry jobs, or those very much removed from upper levels of management, but you can still strive to better understand those working along side you. What I’m calling for, although not immediately clear in the OP, is a balance between “going along” and “doing it yourself”. I have a hard time with this, but I’ve found that in almost every case I’ve pushed through the difficulty of looking at a problem from someone else’s perspective, I’ve usually found the start of a successful solution.

      You can model this in the classroom through rubric based assessment for mastery, by providing the intended learning outcomes and understandings that students MUST express and articulate, without necessarily locking down the form. For example, the 10th and 11th graders in my district recently completed writing persuasive essays. They then took those essays and turned them into Public Service Announcements (PSAs) that were shown to other students. The English teachers all used a common rubric to grade both projects. It didn’t matter whether the students presented their essay in written format, oration, or through the video PSA, as they were all being assessed on the structure of their arguments.

      As far as formal papers for higher ed, I’d consider most graduate programs to be little more than a formality for most teachers now (several in my district take very blaise, “jump through the hoop” programs just to secure their professional teaching certificate). I purposely sought out a master’s program that wasn’t your typical “run of the mill” program that focused more on product and learning, than the formalization of the paper and ideas. I still had to submit the paper in proper MLA format, but my program also included a lot of other aspects that interested me (building social networks across classrooms, social activism, etc.), thus making the formal writing that much more palpable.

      1. This brings up some thoughts for me that would be good in a separate post: compulsory education versus for-pay Ed. And the answer to the question why do I need a diploma. The scarecrow didn’t need the diploma to make him smart. I can expound on these in another thread if you like.

  4. Balance is the key word Ben used. Teachers need to move into the world of technology and not hold strictly to antiquated teaching methods. It’s important to encourage creativity but to also teach attitudes present in the real work world and that sometimes there just isn’t the option to expand on the parameters given by the boss. In other words, “My way or the highway” can be the directions for some assignments but shouldn’t be the norm for all assignments.

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