Independent Thinking in an Age of Conformity

Over at the Rhizome Thinking community, the theme this week is about “independence” and learning. I’m been trying to think about this along a few varied paths.

First of all, check out this student TedX talk about learning and using Minecraft as a place for inquiry and learning.

Looking at the video and listening to the talk through this lens of “independent learning,” it occurs to me that the freedom this student has had to pursue his own path and make his own discoveries has opened up some interesting doors for him, and provided a way forward into a lifetime of inquiry. I love his reference to “play” and using blocks as kids. And his smile when he says “at the center of this course is a video game …” is priceless.

Then, I think to my own sixth grade classroom. How much independence do I really give my students? I like to think I give more but I fear I probably don’t. Listening to Dave Cormier’s video at the Rhizome Learning site this week had me thinking about the environment of learning in my classroom, in my school, in my district.

That all sounds great, and I agree. The difficulty in nurturing a truly independent classroom space is twofold. First is that teachers are under intense and increasing pressure to meet standards, and while one could argue the Common Core actually opens up plenty of avenues for student-led inquiry, there is still a stifling framework. These things must get done, is the mantra I hear in my head. The second point is related to the first, and a bit more alarming: students have been programmed to follow directions to the T and to submit work that meets the criteria exactly.

I notice this a lot with mentor work that we look at for various assignments. I’ll bring in a piece of student writing or show them my own, and sure enough, when the projects gets handed in by students, they are like little replicas of the mentor texts (mini-writing-mes). Year after year of rules and testing and teaching to the test have created this rigid and rather inflexible set of learning ideas in their heads, and when given freedom and independence, a fair number of students seem unsure of what to do and where to begin. We’ve drummed out their curiosity for fear of failure, and we are all to blame.

We actually ran into this with teachers, too, during a year-long Professional Development project that I co-facilitated in an urban elementary school. It was a school that had done so poorly on state tests that the state came in and oversaw curriculum and instruction, with canned lesson plans and scripted lessons. The teachers became like robots, delivering lessons that they had little investment in. Our project was completely based around classroom-inquiry projects, where teachers determined the topic of inquiry and then moved into it. For some, just shifting to this kind of thinking was a hurdle almost impossible to overcome. They didn’t trust their judgment anymore as teachers. It literally took months of support and inquiry and modeling to break them free of those shackles and become independent thinkers again.

So what can we do as teachers to help nurture our students?

Keep opening up doors for students to be passionate about ideas (I often look to the work of Paul Allison and Youth Voices for how this might unfold). Remain flexible as a teacher about students being interested in things you know nothing about (ie, Minecraft). Model for students what inquiry looks like — not just at the end with a finished product but from the start with the brainstorming that leads along many different paths. Trust that the grading/assessment may be important in moment but is of very little importance for the student’s life.

Allow for independence, even in a system where conforming to rules and practices and standards is common practice.

Peace (in the thinking),
Kevin

 

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8 Comments
  1. Yes. Absolutely.
    And…leaders need to nurture and encourage teachers’ independence and trust their staff’s professionalism enough to allow them to freely engage in innovative classroom activities.

  2. I am happy to see someone else use I-Search as a model for the moribund research paper. Ken Macrorie’s book is the bible of project=based writing. Good on ya, Kevin. I introduce incoming comp students at university to academic research using the I-Search.

  3. I’m glad someone else is scratching his head over the conundrum of exemplars: “I’ll bring in a piece of student writing or show them my own, and sure enough, when the projects gets handed in by students, they are like little replicas of the mentor texts (mini-writing-mes).”

    I’m waiting for someone to solve this Sphinx-like riddle (and not providing an exemplar doesn’t seem to be the answer, either). Maybe “independence” as described above…?

  4. Hi Kevin – thanks for sharing this experience which I can relate to – particularly this:

    >>The difficulty in nurturing a truly independent classroom space is twofold. First is that teachers are under intense and increasing pressure to meet standards, and while one could argue the Common Core actually opens up plenty of avenues for student-led inquiry, there is still a stifling framework. These things must get done, is the mantra I hear in my head. The second point is related to the first, and a bit more alarming: students have been programmed to follow directions to the T and to submit work that meets the criteria exactly.<<

    I think all teachers understand the increasing pressure to meet standards – but over the years there have always been published examples of teachers who believe that they can meet the standards without conforming to the rules – the most recent example posted by someone in this course (can't remember who) – http://www.wired.com/business/2013/10/free-thinkers/ – but this takes a lot of courage. Perhaps we should collect more examples of this.

    And your second point relates to ethos I think. I don't teach in schools any more, but I always believed that the first two week of a year with a class should be devoted to getting the ethos right. It was a risk, because we didn't cover any content – but spent the time talking about ways of working and how we would work with each other.

    But as I say – I don't teach in schools any more – so I'm not sure how this would relate to your situation.

    Jenny

  5. I have tried to add degree of difficulty and risk as a factor in grading much like they do in diving and gymnastics, but it has always been as a ‘fudge’ factor after all is said and done. I have never made it the focus, but perhaps if I had I might have gotten more useful failures and fewer useless successes. We really do get what we deserve sometimes, don’t we?

  6. Kevin. Thanks for Nathaniel Bott’s video. I want to be a student in your class, because I know that you break all the rules, encourage creativity, meet the standards, and have earned your student’s trust and respect and have high test scores despite being forced to teach in the Age of Conformity!

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