Monday, January 23, 2012

When do we stop chewing their food?

The birds have found the feeder. We moved it and a suet holder closer to the house this winter since the trees that used to shelter them were cut down over the summer. I was afraid that their proximity to the house might frighten the birds, but it has not been a problem. In fact, it has made it easier to watch the birds as they feed.

During the spring and summer, I watched as the adult birds fed the babies. The adults would grab food from the feeder and place it in the mouths of the babies waiting on nearby branches. I do not anticipate seeing much of this behavior over the winter. I could be wrong, but I think the birds that visit our feeder and suet cakes have outgrown the need to be beak-fed.

When does this happen in education? In other words: when do we quit feeding learners information and expect them to fend for themselves? This came up this past week as I talked with university colleagues about student evaluations. We have all had comments that our students want more lecture because that is how they "learn" best. I make up that these comments are from students who have come to expect that the teacher's role is to gather and chew up educational information for students to consume. Is that too harsh?

For the sake of completing this post, let us assume that this learned helplessness is indeed the problem. What can we do about it? This is where I try to apply the Teaching-Learning Cycle and the Gradual Release of Responsibility. The Teaching-Learning Cycle provides a framework where I can identify the information and the processes learners need to make it on their own, monitor learners' progress toward these goals, and plan and implement appropriate supports. The Gradual Release of Responsibility represents an instructional approach which helps learners to "fend for themselves" through a series of lessons that begin with demonstrations, move to collaboration, and eventually result in independent practice.

I am fortunate that my colleague, who teaches the prerequisite course for the one I am teaching now, uses these frameworks in his practice. Even after only a few days I have seen a difference in my learners. Not everyone of these learners had John's section, but those who did are able to share with the rest what is expected of them in and out of class. I get the feeling that there will be a lot less gathering and chewing on my part this semester. And for that, I am grateful.


  1. Your last paragraph gets at an important corresponding idea here: It can't just be one professor in a student's experience who is committed to gradual (or any sort of) release of responsibility to the students. There has to be a culture in the student's institution that makes the creation of confident, independent, "self-feeding" learners a top priority. Otherwise the ones who *are* so committed will just be marginalized by both students and colleagues.

    I think we're fortunate at GVSU to have (as far as I can tell) an environment where this is more or less the case. Students "get" that they need to become independent and peer pressure can do a lot of the work for us. After all, when my kids were toddlers, they didn't start seriously attempting to feed themselves until they were around other toddlers for whom self-feeding was a given.

  2. I agree with Robert - the culture of the school makes a huge difference. I suppose I am in the minority of the twitterblogosphere - I teach in a district that has about 450 9-12 (about 1200 K-12) and the students our high school gets all come from the same middle school. I can tell the difference between students who have learned from teachers who are comfortable with teaching the material (and have been there for several years) versus students who have been taught from teachers who were teaching the material for the first time or who were in teaching positions they didn't want to be in. I know the students I have now are a product of the latter situation - in fact, I was one of those teachers (I taught 1 year of 7th and 8th grade math after having taught HS math for almost all of my then 16 year teaching career).

    The question I am wrestling with at the moment is how do I best help those students who have been in the "learned helplessness" stage for a long part of their career as students? In other words, how do you break that cycle? I'm not sure that's something that can be totally done over the course of a school year - although I am not certain of that. At this point in the school year (just past halfway through) - what can I do to help my students to learn the material well, but be less dependent on me without losing them? I'm sure I have lots of other related questions in my head, but none are sticking out at the moment. The bigger picture issue, however, is what can I do *next* year at the start so that I have a fighting chance of my students not being so dependent by the mid-year point.

  3. Lisa and Robert,
    Thanks for your comments. I agree that a learning culture that has a high expectation of learners taking responsibility makes my job easier. Having supportive colleagues who provide ideas and accountability to this principle is also helpful. With that said, my hope is that I would be doing this regardless (fingers crossed that I never am tested on this).

    I am not sure how long it takes for students to embrace the role of learning. I would expect, as is the case in most school-related endeavors, that it depends on the individual. This is where formative assessment helps - but assessment that focuses on the affective not on content. Where are our learners as it relates to responsibility and what support do they need to take more responsibility for their learning? Then we design lessons that gradually provide learners with chances to take control.

    I start by making my desire for their transformation from student to learner explicit. These videos are helpful:
    I hope they help.