On Enforcing Independence #rhizo14


Photo shared on Flickr by gyst

In nature nothing exists alone.
― Rachel CarsonSilent Spring

Never mind polar vortex…how about a mental vortex created by #rhizo14’s week 2 topic “enforced independence.”

Dave Cormier’s provocation this week was to consider how we get people to be responsible for their learning and more importantly how do we allow for true self-assessment and self-remediation.

Can independence (as it relates to learning) be enforced? How do we as educators demonstrate our enforced independence?

This week as I wrestle with this seemingly paradoxical idea, I had to first self-assess what I did and did not know, think or feel about the topic (not much it would seem). Then I had to make a plan to self-remediate accordingly. As I did not have any significant understandings on enforcing independence to start, I had to create and seek out situations that might help some emerge. I had to track down useful people, who through conversation might help flesh some productive thinking out. I had to search out materials to further inform my thinking on the topic. Finally and most challenging of all, I had to sit down to explain what all these activities had produced…in a clear manner for others to understand.

This independent process demanded a set of skills (competencies, mindsets, literacies). For example, I needed to know where and how to find relevant and useful materials. I also needed to know people who might be helpful towards developing my thinking. Also it took time to examine my own experiences as a teacher and parent, then consider how these guide my thinking. Moreover I had to be motivated to carry it all out. I had to feel I could get somewhere with the topic (i.e. if the topic had been black holes I might have felt no inclination to carry this process out).
But it was completely up to me to choose, how, when, for how long, etc.

Imagine if Dave had demanded we have a final product by Sunday afternoon? Imagine if he said HE would evaluate us on our thinking? I would not have had the freedom or space to be independent. By telling us very little on the topic he enforced my independence. If he had said, he was going to evaluate me…I would have, in that second, lost my independence and become dependent on him to tell me…and I would have wanted to depend more on him…for the best or right answer (i.e. the answer he wanted or would evaluate favorably).
Ahh…so deliciously complicated, I would be lying if I said the process was easy.

As I track this process I wonder: Do our students have these skills?; Do we explicitly nurture these skills?; We say we want independent learners but do our actions support this possibility when students are told what to learn, when to learn it and how they will show their learning?; Can they ever become independent in these conditions?; Are we implicit in their inability to become independent learners when everything is prescribed for them?; Can anyone ever become independent when held accountable?

Have we, in our need to simplify and make efficient, ignored the complexity of conditions that allow independence to develop and thrive? Is “the answer” to enforced independence perhaps, to borrow Tony Wagner’s words, more “ecological than logical?”

Do independence and motivation have an inexplicably complicated relationship? Does each one foster and nurture the other?

Psychologist Edward Deci’s work highlights “that feelings of competence will not enhance intrinsic motivation unless accompanied by a sense of autonomy… people must not only experience competence or efficacy, they must also experience their behavior as self-determined for intrinsic motivation to be in evidence. This requires either immediate contextual supports for autonomy and competence or abiding inner resources that are typically the result of prior developmental supports for perceived autonomy and competence.”

He further explains in Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being, that “teachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge research revealed that not only tangible rewards but also threats, deadlines, directives, pressured evaluations, and imposed goals diminish intrinsic motivation because, like tangible rewards, they conduce toward an external perceived locus of causality. In contrast, choice, acknowledgment of feelings, and opportunities for self direction were found to enhance intrinsic motivation because they allow people a greater feeling of autonomy.”

To feel motivated we need to feel independent, and moreover to feel motivated we need to feel supported as Deci explains: “humans are liberally endowed with intrinsic motivational tendencies, the evidence is now clear that the maintenance and enhancement of this inherent propensity requires supportive conditions, as it can be fairly readily disrupted by various non-supportive conditions.”

So even though Dave has invited us in #rhizo14 to be independent, I felt motivated to do so because I felt supported and have skills that allow a certain degree of competence. There it lies for me…to be independent does not imply we are no longer dependent, but rather it is how we are dependent and on what. Lastly, each of us has a unique formula for independence determined by the skills, connections, networks we do or do not have. Is this not similar to the exquisitely magical interplay of organisms in an ecosystem being simultaneously independent AND dependent on each other?

As I hobble to the end of this week, still feeling at sea, ecologist Eric Berlow’s eloquent words offer a bit of solace:

We’re discovering in nature that often simplicity lies on the other side of complexity. So for any problem, the more you can zoom out and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of zooming in on the simple details that matter most.


11 thoughts on “On Enforcing Independence #rhizo14

  1. Hi like you r blog. My question, maybe you have an answer. Is it independence when adding texts of other people to your text? I know this is academic custom, so you are not to blame for this.
    We teach students to write an opinion and add some great names to it and citations. Is this learning to be independent?
    Well I do not know an answer, but the question keeps haunting me.

    • Jaap, I guess it is: after all, it is you who choose what texts you are going to add, you make the cuts, you build the context… if we couldn’t base our constructions on the works of others, we would have to reinvent the wheel every time.

    • Jaap, I love your question. I have to say I really am not certain if it is independence or not. I have to say for me to develop some deeper understanding I felt I needed points of reference, something to push off of so to speak. I think the act of me selecting an article that had meaning to me, then selecting sequences that brought light to thoughts of my own, was a helpful and independent mental process (moreover I enjoyed the process). The quotes also gave some bearings on an otherwise barren landscape, I am just finding my way in these topics and feel inclined to rely on some outside inspiration. Maybe as I move through I will make my own unique marks on the landscape! I hope to!

      • If I may add to your discussion, I feel independence also results from curation, which is a critical skill for our students, and all of us for that matter, to acquire and apply successfully. Bringing others into your line of thought is not only a springboard, but it also establishes dialog. It allows the reader to hear different ‘voices’ on a given subject.

  2. Carolyn, a word kept popping up in my mind as I read your post – resourceful. How does one become resourceful? You’ve certainly made me think about actions and mindsets that might nurture the type of curiosity and drive that will point people towards the direction of learning, independence, and resourcefulness. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Thank you for the inspiring read.

    • Clarissa…loved your blog post, I have a post in the hopper “Is Busy the Boss of You?”. i too, saw that tweet of Dean’s and it has been rolling around in my mind since.
      I think resourceful is a great word, it brings to mind being in a stance of a learner…who goes through life thinking “How can this new pieces of information be useful to me?; How can I use it, rework it, make it mine?; Where can I find the information I need? Resourceful describes all of these for me.

  3. Loving the phrase “teachers who are autonomy supportive…” (am adding that to my list of ways to characterize my current obsession with defining effective teacher presence). But I also really like your framing: “to be independent does not imply we are no longer dependent, but rather it is how we are dependent and on what.” We all do have a unique formula for independence…and maybe as life-long learners (remember I teach grad students) we also need to be aware of how we remix the formula.

    So maybe one key to leveraging this whole rhizomatic metaphor is to think about teaching presence in those terms. As the “lead” in some formal learning activity, am I attuned to the state of independence/dependence-awareness of the learners? Do I have enough in my course design and operations toolkit to scaffold some of the skills necessary to do what you did this past week; to be patient enough to sometimes not require “a final product by Sunday afternoon;” but also flexible enough to recognize those sparks and moments when it all comes together and you just need to get out of the way…

    Yeesh. Thanks for letting me think out loud on your space. Not sure what sense I’m making of this just yet, but you are leading me somewhere interesting.

    • I love this connection and extension Jeff. I like: “attuned to the state of independence/dependence-awareness of the learners.” I think previously I might have been reactively aware of this ratio in my students but not proactively intentional and purposeful with scaffolding in of skills. More specifically having the understanding and empathy to understand how different this ratio and the readiness can be for each individual. I consider how out on a limb I felt, in navigating myself through this week…but how freeing it felt to get to the other side of it. I made SOME sense out of it for myself!! What a feeling 🙂 So it is this exquisitely balanced tension between being overwhelmed by the freedom and being exhilarated by it. I like the term “autonomy supportive” too, one it encourages autonomy but also suggests the idea of supporting it.
      What a great obsession to define effective teacher presence!! Continue on this great quest!

  4. Hi Carolyn. I found the connection to ecological thinking especially useful in trying to untangle the complexity of the problem of indepence (and all other topics we’ve been dealing with and will be dealing with), and the video particularly good for my own brainstorm. Right now, I guess what I have been finding more difficult in following #rhizo14 is to navigate through the mass of information. The navigation would be better if I had more skills, as you point out. Now, for self-remediation, if I don’t drown, maybe by the time of #rhizo15 I can be surfing… : )

    • Andre, I agree with you that looking to natural systems is particularly helpful in navigating uncertainty. I am always surprised at how we humans, who are of the natural world, balk at look to nature to make sense out of the systems we have created or those we want to create.
      I think the feeling of drowning in the learning is the instinct that will make you fight for independence and develop the skills along the way. I think you will find your way…just trust the process and your instinct.

  5. Jaap – I was interested to read your comment just after finishing reading Carolyn’s post. She set the scene for me with the Rachel Spring quote that immediately made me think of Ailsa Haxell @ai1sa and so I was already smiling. To me Carolyn was engaging with ideas from other people and using her own life experience as part of exploring links between independence and motivation. Your view seemed to be different. A student may tell us that they added references to impress and that would worry me about the work we assign them and what our assessment criteria were. Wouldn’t it be better here on #rhizo14 to start from the assumption of honesty ? That people are bravely sharing their learning tussles not trying to impress. I think that’s one way to help the connection of differeny ideas and ways of knowing.goo
    Of course that may not have been what you meant and if so, I apologise.
    Jenny Mackness spoke about interdependence, and I am beginning see that rhizomatic thinking is about connection and questions individual knowledge.

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