26 August 2012

Left to their own devices

A recent article on Mindshift caught my attention as it raised some interesting ideas about teaching young people the definition of success. The article reports on an interview with Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success. Two particular points resonated with me because of their correlation with my own observations and reading.

Dr Levine made a point about praise echoed by Carol Dweck and others: that too much praise can be counterproductive. She states, “The reality is that self-esteem comes out of competence.” Earlier in the interview Dr Levine argues it is important to let kids fail as it is one of the chief ways for children to make progress, such as when they are learning to walk.

Dr Levine sums this up well in her op ed piece in the New York Times:
The small challenges that start in infancy (the first whimper that doesn’t bring you running) present the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.

This accords with my own reading and observation: few students are ‘left to their own devices’, and this new way of being may be undermining the kind of thinking needed to engage resiliently with the world.

This is also relevant for teachers. How do we intervene when we see students not succeeding at a task? Do we let them finish it and then give feedback? Do we tell them straight off that they are on the wrong track and that, in this case, their response does not meet the criteria? When time is available for students to complete extended compositions, do we ask questions during the process about how the product is developing and meeting the criteria? How do we avoid being the hovering teacher?

In group work, leaving students ‘to their own devices’ is essential for generating ideas and getting them started. Refraining from hovering is essential. Occasionally, engaging in the critical conversation mid-composition can help students to realign their focus. If a group is off-task, asking pertinent questions can result in members of the group recognising that their developing product could be altered to better meet the criteria.

Many of us are creating rich tasks where there is enough time for students to try and fail, and then make adjustments if needed before submission (write, edit, and rewrite). And many of us are inviting students to assess their success against the intended goals whilst in the process of composing. Hopefully, their learning will be much more effective.