Sunday, July 4, 2010

Wonder Why Sunday: Dependent Learners

I'm rambling today--lots of questions pouring out faster than I can type them. Feel free to comment and my readers and I can examine this together. 

Last week, I wrote about high school students transitioning to college students. I was inspired by Brian Harke's article, and this blog is in response to his latest post, High School to College Transition, Part Two: Academic Expectations. (It is a solid article with nice ideas, for all parents of future college students).

I'm not going to reiterate the entire post, or analyze its entirety either. One part stood out to me, and I kept rereading it. Right away, Dr. Harke discusses the manner in which freshman enter college. He says:

High schools often reinforce these expectations [that college will be like high school] by unwittingly allowing students to enter college as dependent learners rather than independent learners. I say this not to place blame, but to recognize that up to this point most students have had teams of people supporting them, keeping track of their academic progress and looking out for their best interests. Since this has been their norm for 12 years, new college students are often at a loss when faced with the reality that it is up to them to manage their academic independence.

I liked that he said "I say this not to place blame" because blaming others for a large problem diverts attention from actually solving the problem. I agree with Dr. Harke. College, trade school, or a job requires people be independent learners. Can you imagine showing up to work and the boss saying, "Did you read the manual? Nope? No time? OK, I'll give you some time today." That does not happen, and I wonder why it does in high school.

I can't imagine that, and I know that never happened to me as an undergraduate, and my goodness, never as a graduate student. It probably shouldn't happen in high school either, especially if teachers are training students for a big world they will enter in four years or less. High school teachers do that, though. I've done that. I have enabled students to stay dependent learners instead of growing as independent learners. Why?

When I entered teaching, I knew not to do that. I just finished college where research and professors told us to give students an assignment or a consequence, and follow through. I started my teaching career with the idea to follow through and stay consistent. And then a few things happened.

Parents, guidance counselors, other teachers, and administrators called me. They came to visit. They were concerned about grades. Many times, parents asked me: when did I plan to offer extra credit? remediation? opportunities to turn in late work? drop lower scores from earlier in the semester? print off my notes because a student "lost" his? print off missing homework? None of my college professors or research studies told me what to when I encountered this. I thought those suggestions were terrible, but I did them (some of them, not all of them).

You can only imagine why I did them, something that probably doesn't need to be written, but it was pressure from everyone. Over years of teaching, I saw this happen countless times: coworkers and community pushed teachers into breaking their rules. It really does create a stream of dependent learners--those who think others are responsible for their education, that they should rely on others to play the active role, to care the most. Some teachers don't give notes clearly enough, some won't accept late work. Teachers won't plan their tests with other teachers so students don't have too many in one day. All of these concerns? What is a teacher to do about them? They come at teachers everyday. Is this what parents want? Some of them do, and when the others hear what some are getting, well, they want it too.

Which leads me to this very large question: Are schools what parents and society want them to be, just like they are? To be cynical, I could say that fried foods made with white flour and nothing fresh is part of our school system. I could also look at kids sleeping in classes and being passed from one grade level to the next when they should repeat. Is it full of 'A papers' that should be rewrites, or 'Ds'? Going back to the theme of dependent learners, are parents and society creating dependent learners? Is this what they asked for, what they paid for, and what they got?

From a trustful, and perhaps inexperienced view, walking through a high school's hall, you would expect see teachers grading papers, bent over students' desks, or researching an original lesson plan. Students would be working, behaving, trying, attentive, and awake. This is probably what everyone wants and sure, this image happens sometimes.

Which image happens more, the first or second? (How many dependent learners go to college? How many independent? Those answers should provide more clues as to the realistic image).

It is upsetting, especially because that first image is never what I had in my mind when I started teaching, and it probably isn't what other teachers envisioned, or even society and parents. It is what happens though, and it molds these dependent learners Dr. Harke mentions.What are we parents and members of society going to do? What do you want to do?