Image: Trey Ratcliff
I was running a reading activity with a class of students last week (around the topic of workplace bullying -- you can see the materials here) and experimenting with a more open format that took away most of the usual scaffolding and asked the students to address the main VCAL 'reading for self expression' outcome elements on their own.
It went really well, perhaps surprisingly well. However, there were certain students (happily a relatively small number) who asked me for help and they found my 'help' somewhat disappointing or not in line with their hopes. My assistance was offered only in terms of simplified follow up questions to the main prompts, or questions about which parts of the reading text they thought might best answer their problem. For some of these students, what they meant by 'help' was "can you please do this for me?" and I perhaps turned out to be frustratingly slippery.
The suggestion that they try to complete all the elements and then show me and ask for help as a follow up was also a little frustrating for them. Doing it all on your own first (even if it turns out to be wrong -- a process the teacher was emphasizing as being far from wrong) certainly doesn't align well with the hopes of students who want a whole section delivered to them on a plate.
I can't do it / I don't want to do it / I couldn't be bothered doing it / I'm scared of doing it and failing = you can help me by doing all or at least most of it for me and/or my initial lack of comfort and confidence with this excuses me from giving it any of my effort. No matter that this was all about reading -- them reading (not me) -- and that the VCAL requirements for Intermediate and Senior emphasize independent application of the tasks.
I don't really blame the students when this sort of thing happens. In most cases, what I am looking at is a tragic inability (or unwillingness) to just step up and 'have a crack.' It is often a result, in my opinion, of sustained periods of schooling where the less able students were simply ignored in the back corners of the classroom space, or 'helped' by applying the pedagogical equivalent of an infant's bib and plastic bowl and spoon.
Interestingly enough, when I draw the line in the sand on this one and force the students to have a punt on their own, they almost always come up with (at least some of) the goods. I've had what were considered seriously struggling students surprise the hell out of themselves when they get three or four things right out of five, when their initial impression was that they would be lucky to get one of them right. And the things that were wrong? Much easier to explain and show them how to do it the right way when there is already something there on the paper/screen to work with.
And when learners go through this experience once or twice, that willingness to 'have a crack' at something gradually improves with subsequent tasks.
This to me is a fundamental priority in teaching and learning: creating that willingness to step up and just try something.
Over many years of teaching and watching colleagues, I've noticed an almost uncanny correlation between students' willingness to step up and the same inclination in their teachers. The teacher who is unwilling to step up, try different approaches and tools, see things differently, challenge themselves or the results of their classroom instruction, etc., is very often the teacher who ends up instinctively applying a one-eyed approach that ignores the struggling students, and/or resorts to micro-managing and spoon feeding said struggling students.
What we really want and need is for a classroom culture that views stepping up as a fundamental core value.
If we want them to step up, we have to step up.
Simple as that, really.