I have had this blog post percolating in my head for the past two weeks, about the importance of encouragement rather than enablement.
It started when my son Ben, who is four years old, received a pair of hockey skates for Christmas. "Sure," we said to his Uncle Matt, "We'll teach how to skate! It'll be fun!" Fast forward a few weeks and Ben is now the veteran of three "skating" sessions on the local outdoor rink. The first lesson, an 8 year old by-stander, clearly a veteran of skating lessons herself, corrected my husband, saying "No, you don't teach him like THAT. He needs to learn how to move his feet first. Watch me, I'll show you." Helpful? Yes! Embarrassing to my husband? A little. Husband comes home and sheepishly does an internet search for "teach your child how to skate" videos. Second and third times out, Husband takes along a folding chair, so that Ben can push it around the rink. This has only fair to moderate success, but enough to be encouraging to all concerned. After all, Ben's just learning, right?
A week later, we had a dinner party with a crew of teacher friends, my "Case" group, from the former MT Program at the University of Calgary. Before dinner, we went skating at the neighbourhood rink. After watching Ben cry a bit and insist that he "couldn't do it" and cling desperately to my hand as I walked beside him in boots (so I could help more easily), asking for the folding chair that we'd dutifully brought along, my friend Will skated around the rink a few times, zooming in front of Ben once or twice. Suddenly, Ben desperately wanted to skate really fast, so Will picked him up and skated around the rink with him. Ben wanted to go again, and Will said, "Then, go. You know how to skate." Ben insisted he couldn't and needed Will's help, to which Will replied, "Catch me and I'll take you around again."
By the end of the night, Ben was skating around the rink by himself, no support (or chair) needed. He'd caught Will (and every other adult on skates) a multitude of times, and was "zoomed" around the rink as a reward. During this experience, I realized how often we as adults, whether teachers or parents or other caring people, enable children to achieve success rather than encourage them to do so.
I thought Ben couldn't learn to skate without a lot of direct teaching, modelling, and yes, encouragement. It turned out that all he needed was a bit of a challenge, a bit of success, and the inner desire and knowledge that he could achieve his goal. I didn't need to do it for him, he needed to do it for himself. Ben is on his way to being a competent and confident skater, and if he falls down, he can pick himself up.
When teaching children skills, independence and competence are always the goal, but sometimes we accidentally sabotage that by helping kids so much that they don't know how to help themselves.
I am currently taking a Learning Disabilities and Associated Disorders e-course through Foothills Academy, and have also recently attended a Differentiated Instruction conference through Staff Development for Educators (SDE), which have given me a lot to think about. Through a talk by Dr. Ellen Arnold at the SDE conference, I can see how often our in-class accommodations and modifications can lead to student success but not independence. Dr. Arnold supports student self-awareness and self-advocacy. It makes sense for ALL students to understand how they learn and what they need to be successful. It makes me think of those popular self-diagnosing personality and career quizzes, which are popular because people want to know who they are.
Dr. Arnold uses Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences to help differentiate and find things that students are good at, however, she does not like to give the kids quizzes or tell them which category they are best at. Rather, she suggests explaining the categories and giving kids the chance to choose the ones that work best for them and give proof to support their choice because it doesn't matter what we see, it matters what they believe about themselves. I really like this and I think that this is something I need to come back to, after I let it sit for a bit.
It's been an interesting to think through the ways that I unconsciously enable and do things for my students (and my own child) rather than encourage them to figure things out on their own.