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We recently got involved in helping our teenage child with a piece of college work, where they were asked to talk about how the theory they'd learned on the course had influenced their practical work. When we discussed this as a family, it became apparent that the reason our teen was struggling with this is that they felt that they all the theory they'd learned was "rubbish" and that none of it informed their practical work - they thought their own ideas were superior and preferable. They seemed very certain of their stance and not open to discussion: they're studying a subject neither of us know much about, which makes frame challenges difficult for us.

We were pretty gobsmacked by this. To us, it indicated not only towering arrogance in the face of instruction - to think they knew better than centuries of informed academic thinking - but also a concern that the course in question was being taught very badly if that kind of attitude was not challenged. We were so shocked that we sidestepped challenging it there and then, not really knowing what to say and not wanting to escalate it into a full-on confrontation.

Obviously this can't be left unremarked in the long-term, however. Not only does this piece of work need to be done, but our teen needs to elevate their grades - which are good, but not outstanding - if they want to go on to the further education institution of their choice. The fact they're rejecting a portion of what they're being taught as "rubbish" would seem a potential contributor to them not getting the required grades. They were also adamant that it was pointless reading additional theory aside from that taught on the course to try and get some ideas they might accept or appreciate to inform their practical work because it was more important for them to use their own ideas.

How can we go about making them more open to receiving taught ideas, reading around the subject and using them practically when they're so convinced they know best? And how can we do this in a manner that will minimise the risk of upset and confrontation, especially given that feelings on this subject are high on both sides?

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    Not an answer, but this is present to some degree in a lot of if not most teenagers. How many teens think their parents are wrong/idiots, when all points to the fact that they are not (they're successful, making a living, in stable relationships, are kind, law abiding, etc.) It's a phase they eventually grow out of. Mark Twain even had an explanation for it: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Nov 15 at 12:37
  • @anongoodnurse that's a fun anecdote, thank you, and I'm aware it's very common but - in my limited experience - it tends to be less prevalent at school. Certainly, when I was that age while I'd happily fight my parents on the most dumb issues imaginable, I would listen to teachers. I even recall my parents remarking on the contrast at one point. And either way, we need to get her to do this important piece of work and step up on other assignments towards better grades.
    – Bob Tway
    Nov 15 at 13:57
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    What subject was this? Sciences and arts have very different approaches to the relationship between theory and practice, and that will make a difference to how best to tackle this. Having said that, if its sophomore year then I'd be inclined to let them fail, and learn from that. Nov 15 at 17:39
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    Universities are truly storehouses for knowledge: students arrive from school confident they know nearly everything, and they leave five years later certain that they know practically nothing. Where did the knowledge go in the meantime? In the university, of course, where it is dried and stored. -- Terry Pratchett. Nov 15 at 17:43
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    You may be right. I think that 'teen arrogance' carries over to other authority figures, though, including teachers. I've seen this happen a number of times. Having unmerited faith in one's own opinion of things may have to do with becoming independent, but I haven't studied on this. (I've also seen this in adults, btw. Having strong opinions that are completely wrong... well... it's human. Unfortunate but there it is.) Nov 15 at 18:12

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To summarise the relevant points from the discussion:

  • The student is studying the arts.

  • The parents have a science background.

Something Richard Feynman said is relevant here. I haven't got it to hand, but his point was that in the sciences there are Right answers and Wrong answers, and if you tackle a problem the wrong way you get a wrong answer, and that is the end of the debate. But arts aren't like that. Nobody can say "you must do it like this" because somewhere some artist will have done it differently and come up with great art.

So it is quite reasonable for a student to deliberately and knowingly go against current theories, because those theories are even more tenuous than those in science. You might like to look at the history of Impressionism; the term was first used as an insult because the impressionists went against the prevailing ideas about what constituted fine art.

Having said that, you write "They seemed very certain of their stance and not open to discussion". That is an issue. Its one thing to be willing to try to experiment and break the rules. Its quite another to believe that your ideas are automatically superior. So that is the angle I would take to tackle this in your discussions. Try getting the student to explain the theory they were taught to you, and see if you can understand. Reflect your understanding back, and have a discussion where you are the student. If they can give you a detailed explanation of the existing theories and what they see as wrong, then I would say there is no problem (in fact, its a good sign). If on the other hand they are working from ignorance because they didn't even pay attention, then big problem.

In the latter case, I would suggest trying to get them to explain more. Just keep asking questions about why and what. Hopefully you will get them to go back to their books and lectures to answer your questions, and that will get them to engage with the course a bit more.

But as I said before (and as Chris Sunami says in their answer) its ultimately up to them. They are (or very soon will be) an adult, and must therefore take responsibility for their own mistakes. But don't worry over-much. I'm sure the lecturers have plenty of experience with students like this.

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The arrogance of inexperience is a core feature of the teenage years, and has been since the dawn of human history. As much as it may both worry and irritate you, it's probably counterproductive to focus on it. Your goal is for your child to do well (better) in school, so put that first. Here are some strategies that MIGHT do better than lecturing him:

  1. "Your theory sounds interesting. Can you explain to us how it works, and why it's better than the accepted one?"
  2. "It seems like you're struggling a little here. Is it possible that you've missed something in the theory that the teacher was trying to teach you?"
  3. "It sounds like the teacher isn't explaining this in a way that makes sense to you. Maybe it might be worthwhile to go talk to them directly."
  4. "Your way would be great to pursue outside of class. But since this teacher is grading your work, do your best to at least try it their way."

You didn't say what age your teenager is, but he's doing college work, so he's either in college, or is a grade-school student doing accelerated work. Either now, or in the near future, he's going to have to transition into being responsible for his own education and learning. Part of that might be making mistakes and struggling a bit--that's the only way you lose that arrogance, no-one can talk you out of it. As a fellow parent of a teen, I know how hard it is to watch your child make mistakes, but I also know sometimes it's unavoidable.

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You have two good answers that have stated much of what I wanted to say. But I want to emphasize something that hasn't been addressed directly.

Not only does this piece of work need to be done, but our teen needs to elevate their grades - which are good, but not outstanding - if they want to go on to the further education institution of their choice. [emphasis mine]

What does your child want? As parents, I can guess, and be in the ballpark, what you want, as it's what almost all parents want: we want our children to have opportunities to do well and succeed in life. But if that's not what they want, you can't force them without some serious conflict to do what you want for them.

Both my (now ex) husband and I have degrees in medicine. Our most gifted child was also our most difficult. They were not only overflowingly full of themselves, they were oppositional as well. And all they ever wanted to be a was/is a physician (I don't know why; we didn't elevate ourselves, and though I loved it, I wouldn't wish it on anyone to become a physician today.) But you don't get into medical school by being convinced you belong there. You need to work, something my child did not want to do. So they did poorly in school for the reason that most gifted kids do poorly. The hardest part of parenting for me was allowing that child to fail, which they did, spectacularly so. It was the only way to get them to realize they didn't know best all the time. Only then were they able to accept the tools offered to do better, because they have to want to do better.

You can't control anyone but yourself. Trying to do so will lead to a lot of conflict.

...the course in question was being taught very badly if that kind of attitude was not challenged.

You should not blame anyone else for your child's arrogance. Your child has a will of their own.

How can we go about making them more open to receiving taught ideas... [a]nd how can we do this in a manner that will minimise the risk of upset and confrontation..."

You can't. That's what I want to emphasize. You have a choice, and it's either to impose your will on them with a lot of conflict, or to let them struggle because of their arrogance and learn what is really important to them, then be there to help them pick up the pieces when they're receptive to it.

Although this isn't encouraging, it is my experience. And without having to bribe anyone, my child is now doing exactly what they always wanted to do, because they learned that to succeed, they had to work their *** off, which they did, better late than never.

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