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.

Who makes the maze?

When someone tells me to complete a task in a specific order, I immediately and consciously decide that I will not do it in that order. I feel insulted, I feel bored, I feel restless, I feel perturbed with the very thought of jumping though a series of hoops THEY have set up for me. If someone lays out exactly what they want me to do, in blaring black and white, I have a visceral reaction to back away as quickly as possible.

Is this just me? Do I have oppositional disorder? Am I just a “difficult” person?

I was raised a very obedient person. I went to an all girls Catholic school run by ferociously controlling nuns. I know first hand about “looking” like you are doing the right thing (what you are told). I went through high school, for all intents and purposes, looking like I was “supposed to look”: uniform right length (not more than 2 inches above the center of the kneecap), socks pulled up, sleeves buttoned, no makeup, no hair decorations etc. But in reality, I was not there, it was a veneer of me. I got the A’s, I played the role, but the depths of my person was not present. In Grade 11, during Math, English and Philosophy class, us students spent the majority of class time writing a collective story. The copy book would circle the room, and we would add-on bits to the sweeping romance (it was an all girls school and we did spend A LOT of our time considering boys) adventure saga. We were fully engaged, we were fully committed and we were writing non stop for a real audience. No one told us to. No one suggested how, no one broke us into groups and said “You will be the recorder, you will be the encourager (and sorry if this is your gig, it is just not mine). We collaborated on a task that had real meaning and we solved a real problem (we were bored to death).

High school did teach me one thing and that was that I wanted to get out to find my soul. Luckily high school did provide clues as to where I might find “me”. I fled in search of my soul to India. I had seen a video in grade nine about Mother Theresa; she quite obviously did have a soul and was very connected to it, I had to meet her!

Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, (who is a college drop out and describes himself as a non iterative learner) says: “disobedience is really what creativity is at some level, you don’t get the Nobel Prize for being obedient” and that in kindergarten “we are extremely creative and then we go to obedience school.”

When I watched with joy and a sense of wonder, the gardening teacher from the South Bronx, Stephen Ritz, who with the help of students, community and families has grown over 25,000 pounds of vegetables right in the Bronx, while generating extraordinary academic performance. These are real kids, doing real stuff that matter deeply to them and to the world around them. I know that the maze these kids are moving through is not one created for them by a teacher; it is created fresh for the first time as they themselves, create the path as they move through the real project.

Front load, back load, inquiry, PBL, UBD, Galileo, question first, direct instruct last……it makes me dizzy trying to keep it all straight. It seems there is a war of sorts, (in the Twittersphere at least) jostling about which way is the BEST, most authentic and offers the deepest learning…..err, but isn’t THAT all about US?: our egos, our ideas, our self-flagellation. The quality of the maze we can create for our cute little mousies, then we congratulate ourselves on the brilliance of the maze design and squeal (inwardly of course) when said mousies arrive at the other end. Don’t get me wrong, I am a maze designer and quite frankly love designing learning pathways for children, it is one of the most creative aspects of my life. Yet somehow it just does not seem to fit…anymore

Ewan McIntosh says:

“For too long teachers have been doing the most important part of learning for the kids. I want young people than can go into the world and find problems that really need solving.”

He further describes the problems that we are offering students right now as:

“Problems that, quite frankly nobody gives a damn about.” 

The design flow he describes is one that grabs me and I keep returning to reread it.

He describes design thinking in 5 steps:
1. Immersion: Observation and Empathy (interesting: Tony Wagner in his book Creating Innovators identifies empathy as the first characteristic of “design thinkers” as empathy! I like when ideas keep popping up!)
2. Synthesis
3. Ideation
4. Prototyping

From my observations and experience, people never experience deep learn in a linear fashion and do not “get it” at the exact time, regardless of the path you create or don’t create for them.

I, as a learner, want to be tantalized, seduced and offered delectable clues that I can choose to use OR NOT. I want to be drawn, heart and soul, fall deeply in, get lost and have to fight to find MY WAY out. I want the hunt, I want to lovingly discover, piece by piece the big picture. AND more than anything I want it to be MY picture.

Sugata Mitra’s words “learners invent their own pedagogy” have haunted me for a solid year. Last year in the classroom, I saw with my own eyes, students designing methods for themselves to collaborate without any input from me. When I got out-of-the-way and I produced “no maze” to run, only a welcoming and safe space with an open trusting environment, students would decide when they needed to watch the video, and how they would watch it. They created complicated and sophisticated protocols to watch videos collaboratively. This is just one example that I saw in my flipped classroom.

I believe him when he says and he has been at this idea since 1999:

“Groups of children can achieve educational objectives by themselves. Google IS converting itself into usable knowledge, in groups, with freedom.”

He calls it a “self organized learning session”.

I am moving very cautiously this year, trying my best to not set up huge mazes with reward systems at the end. In the short time I have been back, it is unsettling.

HELP, I am really trying to find a way out of this maze!

  • Do the order of events/task really matter? Or does it matter more, that students are fully connected with interest to the task or topic?
  • Who should make the maze?
  • Just because the maze has an intelligent maker who is through and thoughtful does it make it a good maze?
  • What do students “get” at the other end of the maze?
  • What do you say do when students do want to go through the maze?
  • How much time and energy did you invest in creating the complexity of your maze?
  • Can we stop making mazes for student to travel through and still exist within in the system as it stands today?