Enormous greedy babies

Spoon-fed students won't fend for themselves at university, says Tim Birkhead

June 19, 2008

Some years ago a friend of mine, a behavioural ecologist, began to study what was then a hot topic: parent-offspring conflict. The basic idea (based on genetic relatedness) is that parents should be nice to their kids, but kids should behave selfishly towards their parents. An all-too-familiar scenario for many of us, I suspect.

My friend measured the magnitude of parent-offspring conflict by hand-rearing baby birds under two different regimes. To some he behaved as a "reluctant parent", never giving quite as much food as the chicks begged for (while ensuring that they had enough); to the others he was an "indulgent parent", feeding on demand. He then looked at when the chicks in the two groups became independent. Perhaps not surprisingly, those reared indulgently took much longer to fledge and feed themselves and, significantly, behaved like babies for far longer than had ever been recorded in the wild.

Making the transition to independence is a crucial step in the lives of all creatures, whether they are birds or people. The indulgent care provided by schools in response to the current examination system, in which children are spoon-fed right up until they take their A levels, means that some subsequently find it very hard to make the transition to full intellectual independence.

This situation was epitomised recently by a story told to me by a colleague about his experience of supervising one particular final-year student. It should have been a mutually rewarding experience, but instead was more like coping with an enormous greedy baby.

The student was benign, conscientious and industrious but completely unconnected with his research project. He simply didn't get it; didn't understand that ticking boxes, jumping through hoops and attending meetings was not enough to achieve the highest marks - despite having had it explained to him repeatedly.

The crux of the problem was that this student simply never quite grasped the concept of independent thought. His focus was entirely on "the process" rather than engaging with the research and using his own brain to figure things out for himself. Whenever my colleague set the student a challenge, the student responded by banging off e-mails to other academics and getting them to solve what were often rather trivial problems. Which was enterprising, I suppose, in a selfish and pathetic sort of way.

Some students, it seems, come to university assuming it will be a continuation of school: it rarely is. The reason for the disparity in expectations is obvious: governmental control of school curriculums with little thought for how they feed into university. The result is an almost complete contrariety between the expectations of schools and those of universities.

Who is to blame? Not teachers: many of them would like a more open-ended, intellectually challenging curriculum in which pupils are encouraged to think for themselves, but "teaching to the test" and the obsession with league tables precludes this.

The responsibility for trying to bridge the gap has alternated between school and university. Schools complain that within the iron grip of the curriculum there is little scope (or reward) for free thinking. Universities, on the other hand, expect schools to have trained students so that they can think, and they certainly do not want to further downgrade their activities to cope with poorly trained entrants.

How do we solve the problem of neoteny? I have an idea. How about introducing a new A level called "Thinking for myself"? To older academics the concept will seem rather obvious and remarkably simplistic: pupils will be given a series of problems and required to solve them with no formal teaching. Assessment will be based on how creative, efficient and effective pupils have been in devising solutions to the different problems. Thinking for one's self used to be an integral part of education. Entrance to university would be based in part on how well pupils perform in this particular A level.

The types of thinking we might ask pupils to do could span a range of activities, from practical skills such as microscopy and molecular biology, to intellectual ones, in which they are asked to try to solve a particular problem. Years ago I was invited to a Spanish university to give "a seminar" on my research. When I arrived, I discovered that my "seminar" was actually a two-day masters course. At that time, I was working on what is referred to as "cryptic female choice" - the idea that female animals mate promiscuously and are then able to choose which of the various males' sperm they use to fertilise their eggs.

After recovering from my initial shock at having to fill two days instead of 50 minutes, I decided that instead of telling the students what was known about cryptic female choice, I would give them some background and then put the ball in their court by asking them for their ideas about how females might make such a choice. We then went through the ideas one by one, discussing first whether they were biologically sensible and, if so, how we could test them by experiment or observation. At each step, the emphasis was on the students telling me, rather than me telling them. OK, yes, these were masters students, and yes, the topic was one they probably had some interest in, but I am sure that exactly the same type of approach could be effective at sixth-form level.

I have often wondered what happened to those little birds my friend reared after they were eventually released into the wild. I guess that those reared under the reluctant-parent regime fared far better in later life than those that allowed themselves to be spoon-fed, but who knows?

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology, University of Sheffield.

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