Saturday, 25 January 2014

Independent Day

I've been following with interest the #rhizo14 discussion on 'Enforced Independence'. I'm no psychologist, although I do have a view on why some learners are more independent and motivated than others.  Much of what I learn about human behaviour actually comes from observing my two young daughters growing up, and thinking and questioning what happens around me. Today provided me with a typical insight, that, while clearly in a different context and setting, feels somehow relevant.

Every Saturday morning I take my eldest daughter swimming at the local pool. Without fail, she heads straight for the flume and we usually spend the next half an hour (or more) going slowly up the stairs and whizzing back down the slide, in a rather ungainly manner, as she always insists on sitting on my lap. This morning was no exception. Maria is old and large enough to go down on her own, and has been for the last year or so - but despite being an extremely independent child, she seems unwilling to take that extra step where that flume is concerned. Until today.

After 20 trips down the slide (yes, I counted them), Maria stopped me at the top of the steps and told me that, this time, she was going on her own.  After checking she was sure, I left her there and waited at the bottom. Within seconds she came sailing down, a serious look on her face and without making a comment (she is a rather reticent child) but, because I know her, I could tell that inwardly she was buzzing with excitement and pride.  The next half hour was spent repeating her solo slide while I grew colder and slightly disappointed that I wasn't joining in. I couldn't work out what made today special and why she chose today to take the step, but it was clear that she was absolutely ready.  It made me consider a few things about independence.

Firstly, you can't force it. For some reason, her 454th go on the slide (or thereabouts) was the one she chose to do on her own.  I couldn't predict that, in the same way that, as a teacher I can't always predict which learners are going to be the independent and self-motivated ones, or when that light-bulb moment of independent thought or action is going to spark.  But I was interested enough to talk to Maria about it over our weekly trips to the pool. 'Do you fancy trying the slide on your own today? Shall I go first and then you could follow me?' This makes me wonder if I have enough of those kind of discussions with learners, too.   Have they considered the differences between their prior experience of learning and this new approach - how they will adjust, how there lives may be a bit different as a consequence, what fears and assumptions they have? Could this discussion be a part of my initial assessment strategy?

Secondly, part of me didn't actually want Maria to be independent today.  I like it when she wants to sit on my lap, I love to put my arms around this sturdy little character that is growing up so fast and hold onto her tightly, even if only for a few seconds at breakneck speed. That is a difficult thing to admit, and it made me wonder if sometimes this reluctance spills over into the classroom.  Is there a part of us sometimes that colludes with dependent learners - because actually, we want to be relied on and needed?  As someone fairly new to teaching I know that this is a danger for me and is partly about boosting my own confidence. The balance between being firm and providing lots of a support is a difficult one, but perhaps comes down about really knowing each individual, so that you can start to work out who really needs to be held on the slide.  There is also a slight fear of missing out - what interesting stuff might people be thinking about and discussing while I'm not there? (This fear was certainly apparent today, because secretly I really love going down the flume and standing on the sidelines definitely wasn't the same!)

When I first suggested Maria go down the slide on her own, her biggest concern was that 'it wouldn't be as good on her own'. This worry was bigger than the fear of the slide, and it took some reassurance to convince her that being independent doesn't actually mean being alone. The growth of personal learning networks and communities of praxis mean that people can be more connected with their learner peers than ever before. Once learners start to see that, and experience it for themselves, you can see confidence growing and dependence on the teacher easing off. For this reason, I like the idea of motivating factors such as points for tweets and blogs or tools such as Open Badges - anything that encourages people to take that first difficult step.

On the way home from swimming today I asked Maria what was better, going down the slide with someone else, or going it alone. She thought about it for a minute or so. When her answer came it was conclusive, and told me all I need to hear about independence  'Mum, do you know - I enjoyed it so much more when I knew I could do it all by myself.'