Can Derision Enhance Teaching and Learning?

As educators we assume that we have to be kind and supportive to establish a safe and supportive learning environment. We might even embrace the trite saying, “there are no dumb questions.” However, in environments such as League of Legends and other multiplayer online video games, as well as online discussion forums (e.g., FatWallet, Reddit), dumb questions exist, and the individuals who ask them are criticized, demeaned, and mocked by their peers.

At least for some subset of learners, might such a “toxic” environment actually enhance learning by motivating learners to demonstrate due diligence? Might it enhance teaching by preventing wasted time on frivolous questions? At what threshold does a “supportive” learning environment cross over into an unproductive learning environment that rewards incompetence and encourages mediocrity?

One issue is that newcomer integration might be impeded by being condescending toward newcomers. However, perhaps this is less of an issue if the learner is highly motivated to persist? For example, someone addicted to a video game such as World of Warcraft is unlikely to cease playing due to being derided—in fact, derision might motivate one to perform better and avoid being called a “noob.” Derision from peers might actually enhance learning.

However, in the typical classroom, derision needs to be applied carefully. It might shut down learning for some learners, while others may find it more motivating than supportive comments. Also, being derided by someone “in charge” (i.e., the teacher) is different from being derided by a peer. Therefore, I am not advocating educators embrace deriding their students, but only discussing possibilities.

As a Ph.D. student who has completed a Master’s degree and seven full-time years of college education, I have noticed that practically every class starts out with a discussion of the syllabus. Instead, what if instructors expected students to read the syllabus and derided them for asking questions that were answered in it? Instead of giving them the answer and needlessly pulling up the syllabus on the screen, tell them “if you would have actually read the syllabus, you would not have wasted our time with this question.” Similarly, throughout the semester there are perennial questions from students who are simply lazy, failing to read assigned readings, directions, et cetera. Instead of offering derision, instructors typically enable and reward these students’ laziness by serving up easy answers. Conversely, students who exercised due diligence are penalized by having their time wasted. If an instructor spends two minutes on a frivolous question in a class of 30, that’s an entire hour of time wasted. At University of Central Florida (UCF), some classes in other departments (e.g., business, engineering) have as many as 1000 students, which could waste as much as 2000 minutes of time!

When I was a psychology student at UCF Daytona Beach, professors such as Ed Fouty had rather ostentatious “three before me” policies for their students. Specifically, this meant that when asking a question of the professor or teaching assistant, students had to list three actions they took to figure out the answer on their own (e.g., consulting the syllabus, readings, Google Search). In a way, this is derision—it communicates that there are dumb questions and that instructor time is inherently more valuable than student time. And yet, mustn’t it be? Professors, in particular, must juggle teaching dozens to hundreds of students among many other professional obligations. There is simply no way to do this if one’s time is consumed with trivialities. (Note that I never actually took a course with Dr. Fouty because alternative professors taught all the courses he taught at easier levels of difficulty—although I had enrolled in one of Dr. Fouty’s courses, and then dropped it immediately after the first meeting.)

Here are several examples of how participants are derided on the FatWallet Finance forum:

1. In a topic about tipping, the first reply, receiving many upvotes, says: “OK – why is this a difficult concept? If you feel like they did a great job, leave them a tip. If not, don’t. It’s very simple.” This derides the original poster (OP) by implying (s)he lacks critical thought for asking a frivolous question.

2. An OP asks for a simple explanation of BitCoin, and the first response, receiving several upvotes, is merely “” This derides the OP for asking a question that they could easily have figured out on their own. However, the OP is arguably deserving of derision for being lazy and wasting others’ time, which shows a lack of respect. Let Me Google That for You (LMGTFY) is a website that can similarly be used to deride individuals who ask questions that could be answered via a simple Google Search query—it provides a link that shows an animation of typing the question into Google and then loads the search results. Deriding learners in this manner can enhance their learning by encouraging them to take personal responsibility, while also enhancing teaching by eliminating a particularly insidious type of time-wasting questions.

3. An OP asks about doing a chargeback for canceling a hotel reservation that lost its Best Western branding, but admits to having canceled for other reasons and that loss of branding is a “convenient excuse.” One commentator says: “Stop using the brand change as a way to scumbag you’re way out of it. It’s pretty pathetic. If you had a problem with the room then that would be the time for a chargeback. The room is exactly the same as the one you were paying for. They didn’t hack it to bits and throw garbage all over the floor bc of the brand change. Saying you want to cancel on the off chance their is a problem you can’t complain to Best Western management is an absurd stretch.” Although this commentator received more downvotes than upvotes, this sentiment of derision was echoed by several other commentators and might discourage the OP from asking similar questions in the future.

In other forums, derision commonly is incited by “reposting”—that is, posting about a topic that has already been covered elsewhere. OPs for such topics are ridiculed for their lack of due diligence—they could easily have searched for the prior topic. Here, derision potentially elicits a social norm of avoiding duplication of questions and content, which increases the efficiency of the forum.

Derision can enhance teaching by making it abundantly clear that the instructor, or a peer group, will not accept unproductive behaviors. For instance, in the realm of financial literacy education, instead of coddling individuals who continue to incur overdraft fees or resort to the services of payday lenders, we might mock, demean, and ridicule them for their lack of financial competence. “You know your actions are financially disastrous, and yet you persist—you have no one to blame but yourself for your situation, and you will find no sympathy here.”

Derision might encourage “lurking” or “participatory spectatorship” instead of active participation, particularly in games or activities with steep learning curves. Just because some activity is difficult to learn does not necessarily mean it is the responsibility of others to aid that learning. In environments where incompetence is derided, effective learners might avoid derision and exercise due diligence by observing and learning from the behaviors of others (social norms), and even by researching and implementing meta-cognitive strategies to aid their performance. Instead of “spoon-feeding” learners, may we not expect them to take at least a modicum of personal responsibility for their learning rather than behaving as lazy, impetuous children?

2 thoughts on “Can Derision Enhance Teaching and Learning?

  1. Oh Richard, I think you should replace Hitt when he finally leaves. In the interim I nominate you for the position of Snowplow Driver to clean up all the little snowflakes.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Hoffman! It would be fitting with me having earned B.S., M.A., and eventually Ph.D. at UCF, but I believe I need a lot of experience in higher education administration first. Then we will redefine postsecondary pedagogy using gamification and derision, making UCF’s graduates the most successful in the nation.

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