Saturday, December 20, 2008

On Becoming Independent - Hands-off Teaching/Hands-on Learning

I was leading an activity with children at the zoo. We were making luminaries. I explained how to do it, made some myself along side the kiddies, gave kids the materials and cheered them on as they took off. Then I watched the parents. Some parents worked with their youngsters, holding the stencil or the markers. Other parents were doing the craft for the child, particularly if they were very young - which makes sense. But it was remarkable to see how some children were allowed to do the activity with hardly any input from the parents. Those children seemed more creative, relaxed, and spent some time creating some very nice paper bag luminaries. I especially credit the parents for being patient as opposed to criticizing them for being inattentive.

On the other hand there were some parents who took charge of the activity. They directed the child, helped choose the stencil or in some cases selected it for the child. There seemed to be a control over the activity where the child was second chair to the parent. They were compelled to do the activity a certain way, "the right way" - trace the stencil perfectly, don't embellish the picture with color or free-hand art, use certain color markers. Sometimes it was because the parents were impatient and seemed to rush the activity to get it over with.

As I watched those parent-child interactions, it got me to thinking about something I noticed when I was in high school classroom and at the job house. Some formative experiences may have shaped some people to be less independent. Many people (not just children) seem absolutely afraid to take risks and make mistakes. For example, whenever I gave a pre-test or open-lab assignment or an independent project, I had some students who just hated it. They lost it. Got belligerent. They wanted to be told exactly what to do, how to do and immediately rewarded. Free-thinking was not at all appealing to them. There was a right way, a singular way to do things and they did not care about the hows and whys of the matter.

At the job house, my employees struggled with executing projects without serious oversight. They got frustrated and often gave up quickly because things didn't appear to work out the first time. They did not take criticism well, even mild criticism. They always expected a positive response even when they knew they hadn't tried their best or were properly trained to handle a task. I had a host of issues, including managing them, which is why I eventually left the job. I wasn't a great fit.

What I realized is that my preferred teaching/leading style is Authoritative. I give you instructions or guidelines, explain the boundaries, but give you free opportunity to figure the rest out. How I see it, I can only facilitate learning. I can't make you learn. You can ask questions, challenge the rules, be absolutely creative. It's okay if things don't work out the first time or second time. Learning or perfecting a skill involved mistakes. In fact you learn more when don't get in right the first time, because you get positive feedback and the chance to practice what you've learned.

For these frustrated learners/workers they don't want to ponder the mistake or see correctness in alternative views. Thinking back to those kids whose parents made them do things a certain way, they may have a hard time making their own decisions when their parents are absent. What do I like? How can I get this done? Can I feel confident about what I have done? And that confidence in doing something for one's self is very important.

As these thoughts were on my mind, I was listening to NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge program about craftsmanship (Reconsidering Crafts, Dec 14, 2008). A Craft is a skill, an effort to work hard at something, to do it well and produce a product that is sound and sometimes beautiful. Skills such as carpentry, or quilt-making, landscaping, candle-making - these are crafts. But service jobs are also crafts - such as nursing, surgery, plus hair and skin care. How seriously one takes his or her profession in providing the best possible product or service to enhance or enrich the lives of your clients. Lack of facilitated learning, positive feedback, and the requirement to practice and revise actually hurts some people, at least I think so.

This idea of working hard and doing something is essential to personal pride and satisfaction with one's place in life, I think. From my personal observations, poor people are not respected or treated as if there is something in life that they CAN do, do it well, and enjoy doing. Regrettably, urban schools are so frustrating and confusing that children aren't given the chance to truly learn. They forced to listen and regurgitate and get it right the first time. Learning, particularly hands-on learning is thrown away by 4th grade. This hands-on learning is much like the act of learning a craft, becoming skilled at something. My employees did not want to work hard, so no value in it and as a result struggled to fit into the work place and it very program that was supposed to help them out of poverty seemed to fail them.
Please check out entire show on NPR. It was enlightening, especially the segment with Sociologist Richard Sennett. He talked about his book "The Craftsman" in which he makes the case that our definition of craft should be expanded to include any job a person commits to executing to the best of their abilities. He tells Steve Paulson that lots of working-class people care about what they do, with no expectation of material reward.


Iya said...

Here visiting after reading about your blog on Electronic Village. What a great idea. I certainly with you well.

TJ said...

This post is really making me think about the way that the kids and I participate in creative learning experiences. Thanks.

The Urban Scientist said...

Thanks for stopping by.

Christina Springer said...

What a great post! As a home educating parent, I spend a lot of time curtailing my need for things to be "right." I think many parents are unaware that they are hindering rather than helping their child when they direct a child's experience. I look forward to picking this book up.