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Some Realities of Self-Reliant Curiosity: Individual and Small Group Teaching
In my previous essay, I spoke of the benefits of encouraging curiosity and self-reliance and I also mentioned that creating a learning environment where both traits can flourish means embracing parenting and teaching strategy that is less controlling of the outcome. While this may sound elegant in theory it is reasonable to ask what it might look like in practice. I am prepared to offer several observations of this pedagogical strategy in action.
Over the last five-and-a-half years I have worked in a variety of educational environments in which I have watched students pursue their own curiosity on an individual, small group, and large group basis. These environments have been private homes, public spaces, and in an independent school setting. My experiences are by no means exhaustive and certainly do not run the full gamut of educational and learning cultures. I should add that I did not work in a traditional public school setting during this five year span; the last time I worked in a public school was 2005.
Between 2013 and 2016, my work was principally in the humanities and included tutoring and teaching English, composition, grammar, history, and social studies (media, political science, sociology). The principal setting was private homes with individual students and very small groups of 3-4 members. My work was structured around reading and writing assignments, Socratic discussions, and tutoring relationships which involved working with students on how to diagram sentences, conjugate verbs, interpret written passages, and construct expository essays and produce creative writing. Individual and small group work was always discussion-driven and I relied on a high level of personal commitment from my students: they were expected to read, write, and study independently. I did not prepare quizzes or tests and my efforts were concentrated on written assignments and verbal exercises (discussions), much the way a humanities seminar course is prepared at a university.
Results were varied but what was consistent from the beginning was that I had to adjust my expectations about the quality of the work I was to receive. My initial assumption was that the high level of curiosity that I witnessed in nearly all of my students would be followed by a strong work ethic. This was not the case. What I did witness was a learning curve, that is, a movement over time toward a greater commitment to reading, writing, discussion. Initially, nearly every one of my students delivered what I would call the bare minimum: they did no more than I asked and sometimes barely that. If I assigned a certain number of pages of reading they would read only what I assigned and sometimes less. If I gave them a writing assignment they would return a very short composition: a “paragraph,” for instance, would be two or three sentences at most.
When it was time to discuss what my students had been reading nearly all of them were unprepared to offer ideas and opinions. When I would ask opinion questions I almost always encountered a reluctance to offer a viewpoint because the student either believed that they had not understood what they had read or they did not have any interest in offering their perspective. To cope with their silence I would then ask them what I took to be basic questions about the plot or subject of a story or an essay. Even this exercise was difficult because there was an element of what I will call “personal accountability” in it. In many cases, my expectations intimated my students and while I recognized then that it would take time for a relationship to develop, I was struck by an across-the-board reluctance to hold their curiosity accountable to me. Curiosity was, I believe, associated with a form of free play and when I attempted to bridge the gap between “play” and “work” I encountered opposition.
I think it is important to reflect on this for a moment. In my experience in different educational settings, including work as a high school and middle school teacher in Colorado and Maryland and as a graduate teaching assistant in two Canadian universities, I recall that my teaching colleagues, professors, and fellow graduate students believed that a highly structured system that incorporated a forced accountability mechanism was the best way to receive quality work and a studious commitment. There was a general assumption that self-reliance was not really an option until a student was demonstrably an adult. In the universities, undergraduates were presumed to be incapable of a more free-form, open-ended model of classroom participation. In middle school and high school environments the same logic applied. Self-reliance was generally not presumed to be a character trait that most students had and it was not expected, at least in my experience, that undergraduates would have this trait unless they opted for specialized training in a field of their choice and were seeking a post-graduate education.
Looking back, I can understand why this perspective among the educators that I knew would be the case. Most of the students I saw at the university level were quiet and unaccustomed to the Socratic question-based method that I used to conduct tutorials. When I opted to utilize seminar-style discussions that were question-driven, they were unprepared at first. There were many sessions where I could barely elicit a response from the class in much the same way that when I introduced the Socratic method in middle school and high school classrooms I was initially met with confusion. But over time attitudes and responses changed and performance shifted. Nevertheless, there was an initial struggle in nearly every instance.
To encourage curiosity and self-reliance does require, I believe, a great deal of patience. It also goes against the grain of many traditional educational models and by “traditional” I mean the “sit and listen,” complete nightly homework, “don’t leave your seat” approach I received in my own public school education. Now I know very well that this approach is changing in many school systems and project-based learning is becoming far more common than it was when I was a student and teacher. Still, I would wager that many of us remain uncomfortable with a hands-off approach that may lead to considerable initial floundering. I am very familiar with the feeling that students (and teachers) must use each moment “productively.” I am also familiar with the assumption that if a student does not initially like something, they will not work at it unless made to do so. I am not saying these assumptions are wrong, only that they are incomplete. There will be an initial adjustment for nearly every student and educator especially since a hands-off approach can very quickly lead to what appears to be “free play.”
The transition from thinking about learning-as-work to learning-as-play is not something that is often discussed outside of Montessori or early childhood learning environments. Play is certainly not a word that many educators that I have known would feel comfortable using in talking about the activities and projects that are being undertaken in their primary or secondary school classrooms. I suspect that play is still seen by many parents and adults as the opposite of work, that is, once a child has graduated from kindergarten. But this does not mean that play and work are opposites.
One student of mine could spend hours every day working with LEGO and then explain with professional fluency many architectural details in his projects. When he built a structure or a “scenario,” he took pains to detail to me his choice of decor, his concern for historical accuracy, even his choice of weaponry and why he had purchased certain LEGO sets. None of this work was asked of him, he did all of it by his own volition.
I had another student who would spend hours looking up information on the internet. In 2014, she became fascinated by the Winter Olympics and began telling me about what cities were vying for future Olympic games. She dutifully followed the medal count in the newspaper and watched and listened to coverage attentively each day. This interest in the Olympics sparked a passion for world geography and we used to talk at length about why certain nations historically perform better in specific athletic events and how climate encouraged different forms of training. Again, this was a passion my student developed independently and she volunteered information without any prompting. She was justifiably proud of what she committed to memory and of her meticulous attention to detail.
These are but two anecdotal examples and yet I would argue that they are not atypical of the behavior and habits of young people. I had another student who hated reading and loathed having to complete assignments on time. Seldom could I get her to do anything but very rudimentary reading and writing. But if I asked her about her studies of animals she could tell me a great deal about zoology and it was evident that she spent a considerable portion of her time observing animals; one advantage she had was living on four acres in the country with easy access to a creek, woods, and Lake Erie and I tried to incorporate this into her work. She also could spend hours drawing and studying Manga techniques. Again, when the work she was doing was seen primarily as a form of leisure she would approach it with gusto but I had to be very careful about how I tried to incorporate her interests into our time together. I did not want to be seen as attempting to hijack her efforts.
Encouraging self-reliant curiosity can be a very delicate process. Often students enter into a relationship with their teachers with a healthy suspicion that adults -any adult- will trivialize their efforts and dismiss their passions. Again, I do not want to overgeneralize but in my experience, this has been a real concern that I have consistently encountered. I suspect that one way that adults and teachers can overcome this initial suspicion is to tame their own suspicion that students if given greater latitude, will opt solely for play. Many students assume that this is what adults and teachers expect of them and this reinforces once more the artificial barrier between work and play. It is my belief that parents and teachers need to make a more critical appraisal of the boundary between these two categories in their own lives. In other words, do we really believe that work is only what we do not like or are compelled to do and play is merely what involves leisure? Is pleasure synonymous with leisure? When did we learn that?
-Jeremy Nathan Marks
Note: This essay is a follow-up to this piece which appeared in October 2018: http://infinityschool.ca/uncategorized/preparing-our-kids-for-the-work-world-ahead-means-teaching-self-reliance-and-curiosity/