The Perils of Giving Advice

no smoking posters vertical“I can’t decide,” Maria said. “I don’t want people to smoke in my apartment any more, so I’m making a sign for the door. Should I say, “Please don’t smoke here” or “Butt Out”?

She had come to class with a project from home (the best kind of adult literacy work, generated by personal need and totally student driven).

She was asking for my advice, which put me in a very gratifying position: there I was, with someone tacitly acknowledging my expertise, and waiting to be told what to do. She had my ego right where it wanted to be!

“Always better to be polite when you’re asking people to do something…” The words were almost out of my mouth when my imagination was caught by the brevity and wit of “Butt Out.”

Suddenly I was sharing her dilemma–I couldn’t decide either.

It was the dilemma Marie presented, the dilemma of not knowing what advice to give, that led me to reflect on the larger issue of giving advice, and finally, months later, to conclude that it is never a good idea for a teacher to give advice.

Good advice does not equal good learning

My advice, however good or bad it turns out to be, is always based on information I have, my experience with similar situations, and my reflections on that experience.

Good advice, when I have it to give, comes from solid research and information gathering, trying things out, and analyzing what worked and what didn’t work well in the trial. Then more research, more trials and more reflection, until finally I have an automatic response in my bag of tricks: in situation A, with additional factors B, C and D, the best result is usually achieved by doing X, not Y or Z.

There it is, a little gem that I can pass on to any student who wants it, so they don’t have the bother of research, trials, reflection and critical thinking. Hold on!! Isn’t that what they come to school to learn?

And in the situation Maria brings me, I discover that my desire to give advice is thwarted because I don’t have a crucial piece of information to base my advice on. Only Maria knows who the smoking guests are, and how they are likely to react to politeness or sarcasm. She is the one best qualified to decide which sign is the most likely to be effective. It would be good for her to know that in this case she is “smarter” than me.

How can she lose?

In the end, what does it matter which sign she chooses to make? She can decide to make one version today, and if it doesn’t make people refrain from smoking in her apartment, she can make the other sign next week and try again. More computer work; more searches for graphics; more proofreading; more observation and analysis; more talking about what is happening; maybe even a report for the next class assignment.  How can I lose?

The hidden messages that go with advice

On the one hand, I like the positive effects of not giving advice and of supporting students to do the research, trial, and critical thinking for themselves. On the other hand, giving advice has a down side that I like to avoid. No matter how valid, insightful, useful, or important the advice I give may be, it is always accompanied by these unspoken messages:

  •          I know better than you.
  •          I have the right to tell you what to do.
  •          You are too stupid, naive, lazy, etc. to figure out what to do.
  •          I’ll take care of you so you won’t have to think.

I never want to send those messages to a student. So I choose not to give advice.

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that–there are nuances, and the nuances have nuances. How can we avoid giving advice while at the same time helping students avoid major mistakes? What can we say in the moment when someone asks, “What should I do?” or, worse, “What would you do?” Why do people ask for advice anyway? And why don’t they take it when we give it? It looks like material enough for at least one more post!

In the meantime, there’s more on giving advice on Across Difference, the blog I write with barbara findlay. Choose Not to Give Advice is one of our strategies for working respectfully when in a position of privilege, and in The Flip Side of Giving Advice, barbara writes about giving advice when you are paid to do exactly that.

giving advice adult educationAnd here’s a little video of me giving advice about giving advice.

7 thoughts on “The Perils of Giving Advice

  1. Pingback: Lessons Given & Received | Mayur Wadhwani's Blog

  2. All excellent points. With teens, they don’t want to take a teacher’s advice when it’s offered. But they also ask for it at times, and I’m hesitant to give it. But when I think their health/safety or their child’s well-being may be endangered, I can’t help myself. So I guess it depends on what kind of advice they’re seeking. Fortunately, all my students have laptops, so my copout answer is to “look it up.”

    • There’s the rub–I have such good advice to give, and no one wants to take it–even when they ask for it! 😉
      Still, you raise a serious point about intervening when you see someone at risk. My guess is you do a lot of giving information that helps people make their own decision, and go light on the “you should…”

  3. As so often with your posts, Kate, this one really made me think about another way I need to be careful and recognize my privilege in the classroom. Great example.

    Evelyn, I liked how you phrased your comment to the student. I think it’s a bit different from giving advice because you’re not just saying “I think you should do this or that”–you’re pointing out different outcomes of different choices and asking the student which he’d prefer.

    I do really believe this, but I also want to assuage my conscience, having said things like that myself!! 😉

  4. It makes me think of all the ways I hide the fact from myself that I’m giving advice – Oh the size of the ego. So what about this one – a 25 year old teenager is acting out in my class and being disrespectful of me every chance he gets – I decided to say to him – “I’ve noticed that you’re acting very much like a high school student and while I don’t know what went on for you when you were high school age, I wonder if you’ve thought about whether you want to go on using the same strategies you used in those situations. Are they still useful? Do they accomplish what you want? Do you have any more tools in your tool belt now that you’ve lived a little longer and changed your situation?”

    I usually just leave it there. and sometimes it works and often it doesn’t – that’s a lot of analysis I’m “suggesting” he do. Maybe just that I didn’t act like teachers of old will give him pause.

    That’s a very strong suggestion to act differently. It’s not framed as advice but often, I make suggestions, sigh – probably has all the same effects as giving advice.

    • So much “meat” in your comment, Evelyn. Generally, I agree with you that making suggestions has the same effect as giving advice. Yet I notice in your example that what you give is feedback: “I notice you’re acting like a high school student” and then some questions. The questions are a great way to get away from giving advice and to encourage the student to think and reflect on what he wants and what he’s doing to get what he wants.

      It’s true that your wondering if he’s thought about continuing with the same old strategies is a suggestion that hides advice. However, your questions themselves will encourage him to think, without you having to suggest or advise him to do so.

      And yes–the size of the ego never ceases to amaze! 😉

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