This morning I’ve been reading an article called “How a Radical New Learning Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.” It’s one of the increasing numbers of commentaries exploring independent learning among kids, in which teachers present problems and then step back and out of the way, allowing the students to solve them on their own.
This morning I’ve also been working with Eva to photograph the next few scenes for her forthcoming book, The Krazy Kinzy Kapers. She’s builds sets depicting the events in the book, and then works with lighting and composition to create the photographs. She’s learning a lot.
A little context: I was for a brief time in college, a photojournalism major. I love finding the best shot, I’m picky about good lighting, I’m a fan of wide angles and a small depth of field. We were setting up the first shot, and Eva snapped a few photos. I coached her to bend at her knees to change up her camera angles. I coached her go side to side. I coached her to experiment with the wide angle lens. I even took the camera at one point to experiment for myself so that I could show by example.
Gray points out that young children, motivated by curiosity and playfulness, teach themselves a tremendous amount about the world.
All of these instructions are valid, but Eva’s grumpy meter began to rise, and I finally observed to her that I felt she was becoming irritable due my instruction; I pointed out that I did study photography, and that I felt it appropriate to give her general instruction about it. She responded, “I would have explored different angles on my own; I didn’t need you to tell me how to experiment.”
In light of the article I was reading, I considered her argument. There is a balance to be struck here. My motivations as a teacher are three-fold: 1) I feel it is a useful thing, and frankly my job, to instruct; 2) as a homeschooled student with her brother now enrolled in public school, I recognize that Eva sometimes gets weary of working on her own, and therefore try to provide that emotionally supportive partnership that would otherwise be provided by a classmate; 3) I like to DO things, and get very excited about fun projects like this.
Sometimes we need to teach. Sometimes Eva does desire emotional support. Sometimes it’s ok to get excited and jump in with both feet. But sometimes we don’t. She doesn’t. I shouldn’t. And as I considered this morning’s activities, I realized this was one of those times. I backed off and continued reading my article, offering support only if she wanted it.
We’re teaching the child that his questions don’t matter, that what matters are the questions of the curriculum. That’s just not the way natural selection designed us to learn. It designed us to solve problems and figure things out that are part of our real lives.
My biggest challenge of supporting independent learning is knowing when to speak and when to remain silent. I do so want to speak and help and assist and do. It drives me crazy when I clearly see, in my not always so humble opinion, that there is more efficient way to do things. But the truth is, there are a million perfectly acceptable, vastly different ways to solve a problem, and if it’s fun for me to problem solve, I imagine it’s fun for Eva as well. By remaining quiet in cases like these, I give her the gift of self-confidence and pride – the ah hah of finding a solution for herself.
In the 1990s, Finland pared the country’s elementary math curriculum from about 25 pages to four, reduced the school day by an hour, and focused on independence and active learning. By 2003, Finnish students had climbed from the lower rungs of international performance rankings to first place among developed nations.
Dipping my head back into my article, Eva carried on and built and photographed her next set without my input. Her mood lifted, and she took some pretty great photos. When she reviewed her shots to select the best one for the book, she asked for my opinion. Now mindful, I described the things I loved about each photo instead of simply saying “I would choose this one” or “I don’t think that one works.” By discussing the positive elements of each shot, Eva was able to select as her favorite one that included all the aspects that she and I loved. She did some cropping and contrast editing on her own, and the result was exactly what she was looking for. She beamed up at me and said “I did all the photography by myself!”
It’s not that kids know it all already, nor that we as human beings don’t benefit from the expertise of others. They don’t know it all, and we do benefit from learning from others. I think it has more to do with timing and presentation style. What are other ways I could help Eva become a better photographer while retaining her autonomy?
- Provide how-to books that teach how to create great shots and let her read them and report back what she’s learned.
- Offer one session in which I tell her all I learned in my photojournalism classes. Do this apart from her own book project photos, and then let her use what she learned on her own.
- Show her examples of interesting photos and photos that don’t have as much appeal. Ask her to identify what works and what doesn’t, allowing her to uncover for herself what makes a good photograph. By starting with photos that aren’t hers, we can both be spared emotional attachment to the work.
- Ask her how she would like to learn about photography before we jump into it.
- Offer my “resume” of experience to her and ask her what role she wants me to play in her project. If she doesn’t want my participation, I will ask her what sources she will use to gain the information she needs. This open communication and joint planning is fundamental to an effective student-driven approach.
It’s hard and it’s messy, but so worth the effort. In the end, I told Eva how much I still had to learn from her, and that instead of letting her grumpy meter go up, she should express her feelings and tell me what she needs, or doesn’t need. She smiled at this and rewarded me with a pretty fabulous hug. We’re both learning how to do this.
What are your challenges and successes in independent learning?
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