There are some key symptoms of dependent but able learners regarding the level of engagement that students can have with high challenge. One of the most significant factors that emerged was a ‘learned helplessness’ demonstrated by students, which is characterised by a dependent attitude, and a lack of initiative.
A good example of the dangers of unsuccessful student learning strategies was well illustrated by Professor Carol Dweck when she gave a class of high school girls workbooks to complete, some of them containing a set of extra questions that were above the girls’ current level of attainment. The girls not given the inserts performed normally on the test, but for the others the normal pattern of high and low achievement was actually reversed. The bright girls, who usually coasted along, panicked when they came up against the unknown – their confidence, based on the idea that they were ‘clever’, crumbled when they didn’t automatically know the answers.
This does not mean that we should not raise the level of challenge, rather that we should enable our students to deal with difficult tasks with a different mindset. Dweck acknowledges that by creating scaffolds that can effectively remove the challenge, we are not equipping our students to know what strategies they can use when they are confronted with hard tasks. She went on to add that, ‘It doesn’t help a child to tackle a difficult task if they succeed constantly on an easy one. It doesn’t teach them to persist in the face of obstacles if obstacles are always eliminated…. what children learn best from are slightly difficult tasks which they have to struggle through. Knowing they can cope with difficulties is what makes children seek challenges and overcome further problems.’ (CAROL S. DWECK, SELF-THEORIES: THEIR ROLE IN MOTIVATION, PERSONALITY, AND DEVELOPMENT 1-9 (1999)).
What are the characteristics of successful learners?
Such dilemmas have led us to a focus on what skills we want our learners to develop that will enable them to be better equipped for the complex and uncertain demands of the 21st century. In these times, alliteration is all. So we looked at grouping the skills under the headings of strategic, social and speculative learners, although frankly it would have been possible to come up with a variety of different classifications. What actually matters is that this (or a similar set of skills) are agreed across your school as being appropriate for your learners.
What do we mean by independence?
We are assessed on our own, but we learn together. An independent learner needs to be much more than someone who works well on his or her own. They need to be a confident, social individual who learns at least as well with and from their peers, as they do from the teacher, or on their own.
This exercise should raise plenty of questions, some of which are likely to be:
- How can we encourage our students to become less dependent?
- What does it mean to take risks in learning?
- How can I encourage learners in my class to be less fearful?
- How can we enable learners to make useful mistakes?
- What might a whole school approach look like?
Once we have looked at and decided on some of the behaviours and skills that we would wish all of our students to develop, the next big leap is to look at how we can address the issues of student dependency in relation to them. What skills do we want our learners to develop that will enable them to be better equipped for the complex and uncertain demands of the 21st century?