Autonomy and the need to back off by design as teachers
Posted by Dean Holden at March 12th, 2013
by Grant Wiggins, 12 February 2013
My greatest learning as a teacher came on the soccer field. We had been working for a few weeks on the same key ‘moves’ on the field related to creating ‘space’. After a few practices, the team looked good in the drills – they’ve got it! Next two games? Nothing: like we never learned it. Finally, in exasperation I yelled at my co-captain, Liz, one of the prime offenders in not using the moves practiced: USE what we worked on!! I yelled. Liz yelled back from the field: We would, Mr Wiggins, but the other team isn’t lining up the way we did the drills!!
There are two vital lessons here about learning:
- 1) Transfer is the bottom-line goal of all learning, not scripted behavior.
- 2) Transfer means that a learner can draw upon and apply from all of what was learned, as the situation warrants, not just do one move at a time in response to a prompt.
In a word: autonomy. You have to be able, on your own, to size up when to use what you previously learned, i.e. analyze the challenge, and judge what to do, mindful of a repertoire of prior learnings; then, implement a purposeful move, and assess its effect.
Put negatively, the more coaches and teachers prompt/remind/scaffold, over and over, without a deliberate and explicit plan for release of responsibility, the more students will flounder in situations demanding autonomy. We then see them act randomly, on the basis of what’s comfortable, or be paralyzed. Sound familiar?
Everywhere I go I see way too much scaffolded and prompted teaching – through twelfth grade. By high school, Socratic Seminar, Problem Based Learning, and independent research ought to be the norm not the exception: you have no hope for success in college or the workplace without such independence. Yet, practically no district curricula are written to signal, explicitly and by design, the need for increased student decision-making and independence in using their growing repertoire as courses and years unfold. Rather, the work just gets harder but is still highly directed. Endless worksheets, prompts, reminders, and ongoing feedback keep co-opting the development of student autonomy.
Why, then, are we surprised when students sit in a testing situation – where no prompting or reminders can be provided – do poorly, looking like they seemingly never were taught the content? I think this is a key reason why people blame tests for being invalid.
But, Grant – surely with little kids…
No! The approach I am describing is the essence of Montessori where executive control over decisions is central to the methodology. I recall my son, Ian, as a 4-year-old, pondering which ‘work’ to do that day, on the way to school: food work? sewing work? Or drawing? Well, why might you choose one or the other today? I asked. And he proceeded to do a cute think-aloud with little furrowed brow, about the pros and cons (based on recent choices and his skill deficits). At 4 years of age.
Making matters worse, various people trying to help have wrongly interpreted the Gradual Release of Responsibility model to mean that the last step is “Independent Practice.” This is misguided. Independent practice is still scaffolded, prompted, and simplified activity in which the student knows full well what single move we want them to use. The acid test comes when we provide a text or a problem and simply say, with no advice about which strategy to use, figure this out. (Here and here are some helpful resources on genuine Gradual Release).
Which takes us back to soccer. The beauty of soccer coaching (unlike most other sports) is that as a coach you cannot call time out and you cannot script behavior. The sport demands from the start that you coach so as to signal that autonomy in playing winning soccer is the goal. And in practice you must therefore build in ways (typically via regular scrimmages) to see whether or not kids can draw effectively from their repertoire without your advice, under game conditions. Most of the time you are humbled by how hard the transfer of learning really is, but that only makes you re-double your effort because game success demands it.
Coaches know that release of responsibility has to happen daily, not “gradually” in the sense of over months and years. I was taught the following mantra by pro soccer coaches in clinics: every practice must go through cycles of the following: game-related, game-like, game.
The same is true for reading: far too many teachers prompt for a specific reading strategy and provide guided “independent practice” in using each strategy but spend nowhere near enough time watching quietly (and later de-briefing) kids as they handle a reading passage cold, to determine which strategies they used and why (just as we would do daily in a soccer scrimmage). Even if I have only modeled three strategies, I should test to see which of the 3 they use – if any, like my soccer story! – and have us discuss what they did, why, and what did and didn’t work.
Do you see, therefore, how test preparation done right would mean that students gain practice in drawing from their repertoire with no teacher prompting, i.e. where there is no prior warning about what specifically is going to be on the test? Because that is the formal testing situation as well as the soccer situation. Give a slightly-beyond-level reading passage, non-routine math problem, or dueling accounts of the ‘same’ historical event and just see what they do. That’s the true meaning of formative assessment, not a typical quiz on the content just learned.
But Grant, surely you are not saying we shouldn’t cue, scaffold, prompt, or simplify things for learners!
Of course I am not saying that. Every coach must provide helpful scaffold, just as I did in my practices. But every coach also knows what many teachers seem not to know: unless you back off completely, on a daily basis, in scrimmages as well as games, to see whether or not students draw appropriately from the repertoire in a timely and effective fashion in challenges that demand it, you really have no idea what they can do on their own.
Furthermore, if you tape your own classes you will find that you are providing endless advice on how to do things and more often than not co-opting the development of judgment – the sine qua non of transfer.
I understand, this is difficult. It’s counter-intuitive to say: please teach less and help less, in order that performance might become more successful over time. Our instincts as teachers cause us to over-help rather than under-help. But our kids deserve to become autonomous learners. We need to develop the self-discipline to keep quieter, to build in no-stakes “tests” to see what they do under performance demands, to provide challenges that have no obvious next steps, and to de-brief results.
Co-incidentally, in our visit to School of the Future we noted this as our only concern. We saw nothing but great teaching in each classroom – focused learners doing intellectual worthy exercises. But we were made uneasy but how heavily directive much of it all was. While only there for a day, we saw little evidence that all this teacher help was going to be considerably dialed back soon.
In de-briefing our visit, the Principal agreed, and sent out the following e-mail to her staff:
Grant offered us two considerations – 1) that we get students to “scrimmage” more often, requiring more and more integration of their repertoire of skills and integration of concepts, and 2) that we engender more awareness on the part of students about what the complex ‘game’ is.
What does this look like in our practice? Here are some questions to consider as you coach students towards integration and independence:
1. Do students know what the complex ‘game’ is that they are preparing for on any given day? In the short term, do they know what the big performance is for which they are preparing?
2. Do you have an intentional plan for taking away the scaffolds and making it more game-like? What is the plan to take away the leading questions on the worksheet, the instructions and reminders? Are you too often afraid of messiness and overcompensating with scaffolds? Rather, how might you better prepare students for performance uncertainty and messiness instead, or use such messiness as teaching opportunities?
3. Can you make more lessons more scrimmage-like? Can you require a bigger repertoire of skills and more integration of essential questions by the learners on their own?
Great coaching questions, Stacy.