This is the second of two blogs on enforcing independence. In the first post I looked at some reasons why independence may or may not be a good thing. In this second post I am going to look at how to go about creating independence in students.
First though I wanted to take a quick side-step to another very important preliminary. Why may students not be very independent? People we come across are more or less independent to us. This feels self-evident. If I compare my eight month old daughter to my three and a half year old son, to my wife, my brother, my circle of friends, to my co-workers to the two guys who take the same train as me every day but I have never talked to (they’re currently sitting in front of me, I don’t even know their names) they are dependent on me to different extents and in different ways. For me looking to encourage independence in part sees students as dependent. Why is this/ may this be? I have three reasons.
The machine-like nature of HE – The idea of a machine as a way of seeing an organisation (as classically described by Morgan) binds individuals together in dependence to each other. Adam Smith’s analogy of the pin factory shows this, no-one can make a pin by themselves, they are dependent on each other. Now what is vital to think about HE is that the student (at least in this view) is the product. Education is something that happens to the student. They are the raw materials that are shaped to become the pin. Because we aim to produce something (well educated, happy, employable etc. students) we in some way enforce the idea that education is something that happens to them which by it’s very nature makes them passive. By aiming at something to happen to the student and taking responsibility for this we in effect make the students passive as a logical conclusion of having goals centered on them.
The role of teachers as experts – Linked to this but separate from this is seeing educators (in my case a careers professional) as being experts. Being seen by your students as an expert naturally makes them passive. To be an expert is to possess something that someone else does not have and they can only get it through you give it to them. Truth is something that needs to be passed from the expert who holds it to the student who needs it. The student has no role in forming, defining, clarifying or applying this truth, they mainly receive it. The whole lexicon of HE enforces this, a researcher implies someone who gains knowledge, lecture implies someone who lecturers, gives out knowledge, probably in a monologue (professor literally means someone who professes) while student implies someone who dedicates themself (is studious) in the study of someone else’s ideas.
Feelings of inadequacy – Finally the normal process of not knowing something, not being able to do something or feeling inadequate in an area often leads to wanting someone else to intervene to help us out. Feeling inadequate in an area we want to gain mastery is a) very common if not universal to students b) normally is not seen as pleasant and so is preferably avoided c) it seems like the best way to progress in an area is for someone who has gained mastery in that area to give you the answer. In this model teachers are seen as the answer to the sense of unease that comes with learning. This encourages student to feel passive because as the answer to this inadequacy is seen in someone else and not in ourselves.
What can be done about this? Well I want to put forward two ideas that I think form the backbone of how a teacher or an institution might respond to this:
Talk about the problem – I feel it is important not just to try and manipulate and encourage students into another direction, I feel educators need to talk about their aims for learning, why they are taking them, what the alternatives are and why they don’t want them. This allows learners to understand the process they are part of, engage with it and contribute it to themselves. On one level we can never get away from making decisions about the learning process as teachers as part of our role is to have some (at least institutional) control over the process. But we can make the process explicit, make sure students understand it and can engage and have a say with it. I guess this would mainly come about through course aims, expectations and feedback, making clear at these points why we are aiming at independence and asking students to contribute to give feedback on this as a approach, if we are achieving it, if they want it and if it is being delivered effectively.
Reconceptualising the learner – What role the learner is imagined as having effects everything that comes after it. So reimagining the learner for the institution, the teacher and the learner themselves is a vital mechanism for change. This is always asking of the learner “who is this person, “what are they doing here?”. While at the moment I would see the dominant metaphor of the learner is the cog (just part of the machine) or the vessel (empty and passive, needing someone else to fill them). I think this could be changed to the individual as a narrative character who is also part of a network.
Seeing the learner as a narrative character is to get them to ask two vital questions. Where is my story going and how am I going to get there? This puts the learners hopes and dreams to how we see them, no their contact with an institution, class or teacher. The only access these other things as part of the network they are using to move their plot forward, to advance their personal stories. Education for me in its biggest sense is helping an individual identify problems in their life and assess and employ various means to solve these. It is a continued sense of becoming.
How then do you begin to make this real? How would you teach International Law, Global Warming, Calculus or The French Revolution from this perspective? Well on one level I feel there is a shift in all education away from learning subjects to learning about yourself. Personal development should not be tacked on to education but it should be recognised that all education is a process of becoming. But beyond this as these subjects are learnt alongside the “what is this” or “how can we/ have others understood this” there should be more focussed questions around “what can we do with this” and “what does this information mean to me.” I feel particularly the “me” gets lost and it is the “me” that creates independence. When we start seeing ourselves as actors who are using the variety of resources around us to move us forward, when we start trying to develop our understanding, resources and networks to solve our own problems, that is what creates independence.
But as educators the issue is less how we teach, if the focus is on us or on the learner but if we are helping learners understand why they are learning in the first place. In a way all education is about careers development, but I guess I would say that.