I have more writing to do right now than I have time, so it has of course become vitally important to write this blog post that has been buzzing at the back of my brain RIGHT NOW.
My life as a parent isn’t a big topic of conversation on this blog, but a little background is needed here. One of the reasons I don’t talk much about my family in this space is because one of the complexities of adoption is learning how to talk about your experiences while respecting the fact that your child has her own story and her own experiences and only she gets to decide when and where and how to share that story. Part of this journey is her story alone, part of it is ours. And some of it is mine and Shaun’s – and this post is coming from that part.
So one of the things that happens when you navigate the adoption process is that you take way more classes and trainings about parenting than you probably otherwise would. Some of these are to really learn things and some are to show how interested and committed you are to being a good parent.
This wasn’t an awful thing – if you’re like me (and like Shaun) you can find something to chew on in almost any class and these classes were full of enough brain development data and learning theory and interesting personalities that even when the classes didn’t totally work, the after-class conversations were pretty awesome.
Still, two almost identical Love and Logic classes was a lot, even for us. Like many self-help-y or how-to-y type things that develop huge and devoted followings – L&L is based on some fairly simple ideas which are then applied in many ways. In parenting-class world that means many, many sessions reinforcing the same basic concepts. In taking-the-same-class-twice parenting class world, well…. this is a long intro to explain why my brain has had many hours to connect those simple concepts to many things.
In other words, the idea is that kids learn best when they have to face the authentic, real, organic consequences of their choices. Artificial consequences that aren’t connected to the choice the kid made (most routine punishments fit in this category — taking away TV privileges for breaking a window = consequences that are probably unrelated to the bad choice) just seem arbitrary and capricious and the kid ends up blaming you (or whoever imposed the consequence) instead of their own bad choices — which does nothing to teach them not to make bad choices in the first place.
Here’s the basic L&L mantra:
- Give your child a task you know they can handle.
- Hope they mess up.*
- Let empathy + natural consequences do the teaching.
- When the opportunity arises let them try again.
*Note: the debater in me never came to terms with the “hope they mess up” part. There were parents in my classes who really hated this line and who also hadn’t quite grasped the “learning comes from mistakes” piece. I did grasp that part – that’s the part of this I like — but that doesn’t mean you have to actively hope they mess up. I mean, take it to its logical conclusion. If my kid never, ever, ever messes up — there’s no bad outcome. Yes, they may not have learned from mistakes, but those mistakes also never happened so she either learned some other way or didn’t need that learning. So I debate-proved to myself that I don’t have to actively hope she makes mistakes, I just have to be sure I see the value when she does.**
**Second Note: Seriously, we spent NINETY minutes on this concept in one class session. It is not my fault I thought about it this much.
Like many of the simple ideas that turn into Something Big, this is a fairly compelling argument. This was one of the pieces of Love and Logic that worked for me pretty well, which isn’t to say it all did – I have some real problems with some of the other concepts connected to this that I can go on about at length, but won’t here.
And while natural consequences is a L&L cornerstone, it’s by no means limited to that set of books and workshops — this is a concept with legs, that comes up over and over, generally as part of a larger idea that lecturing doesn’t work.
And I’ve been thinking about it in terms of library instruction. And not just because we have an knee-jerk anti-lecture response at this point too.
I’ve been thinking about it because I think it highlights that we spend a LOT of our time “lecturing” – even if we do it with clickers. Because lecturing in this context doesn’t mean just “talking,” “broadcasting” or other words that essentially mean “one-way communication” — which is generally what we mean by “lecturing” in the classroom context.
No, in this context, “lecturing” means explaining the consequences of bad choices instead of demonstrating them. And I think we do that a lot.
Not in the steps — we do a good job of letting our students discover the consequences of choosing the wrong database, or choosing the wrong search terms — within the parameters we set up and the assumptions we’re making about what they need to know we have developed lots of ways to help them discover and learn for themselves.
No, I’m talking about in the big picture — in the WHY should they do these things at all part — that’s where we’re lecturing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone raise this type of question on ILI-L —
“how can I convince my students that they really need to be using these sources?”
“how can I convince my students that there will be consequences if they don’t cite properly?”
And what’s the subtext here? It’s — how can I convince my students not to make mistakes?
Because here’s the thing — our teaching in libraries is more similar to the type of teaching parents do than I ever thought it was. Yes, parents can impose plenty of consequences themselves on the day to day level — “no tv until you finish your homework” but the ultimate goal for most parents goes beyond finishing the homework tonight – they’re looking to raise up kids who can learn stuff, and who are organized to get stuff done and who can go off to college or out into the world and meet deadlines and achieve goals, and am I right?
And library instructors can impose some consequences when the students are actually in the library class – that’s basic classroom management stuff. Yes, some are better at it than others and we never have the power that the grade book or the parental relationship gives – but we are in a position of some power in that context. But that in-class power, that’s not the real goal. We’re looking to teach skills and concepts that students can take with them out in to the “real world” and use to be successful and get stuff done — just like parents.
And this is also a reason why it’s not like regular classroom teaching. The regular classroom has a more immediate set of primary goals than lifelong learning. Yes, I suspect that many, many teachers have life long learning as a goal — I certainly did when I taught history. But the fact that that was a primary goal for me was also a big reason why I stopped teaching history and went into libraries.
I expect that most teachers would prefer that their students cite sources properly in all of their classes. They have a commitment to producing good students in the major, and good graduates of the institution, but that doesn’t have to be their primary goal in a classroom interaction. In my own class, I can say “two points off your grade for every MLA formatting mistake” and then I can MAKE THAT BE TRUE.* I might hope that the impact of that is that they use MLA perfectly in their next class, but mainly, I don’t want to struggle through improperly formatted citations in the papers I have to grade.
*Note: I do not ever do this.
So what are we doing when we say “how can I convince my students…. “? We’re talking about consequences that we have no control over — we’re talking about those life consequences. We’re talking about all of those things that we know because we have more life experience (and more college experience) and if they would just LISTEN to us they could avoid those mistakes. But here’s the thing – I think maybe we should be letting those happen.
And I think this not just because I think it would be good for the learning — I also think this because of what it would mean for us.
Take First Year Student X – coming into OSU with a gaudy 4.0 GPA from a decent high school, has never had any trouble at all getting A’s on her research papers using her favorite library sources — books and the online Encyclopedia Britannica. She’s never read an academic journal and she thinks of “peer review” as trading papers with a classmate and making comments.
How much energy do I have to spend to “convince” her that she needs to use peer-reviewed sources in her college research papers?
Alternatively, what happens if this highly motivated, intelligent student turns in a paper sourced from the encyclopedia, her textbook, and some 15 year old monographs from the library’s stacks? Probably two options — she gets negative feedback on her sources by her instructor or she doesn’t.
if she does? She’s going to learn from her mistakes. And I can help her get where she needs to be much more effectively. If she doesn’t – then no amount of energy spent by a librarian to convince her that she REALLY needs to use different sources will make a difference.
Now see my first extra note above and don’t get me wrong – I don’t actually want my students to make mistakes. I would prefer they make the choices I would prefer they make. I think using a variety of interesting sources, including those that represent more than opinion or anecdote, is important and I want students to do that. I’m all for giving those students who are ready to learn to do things in a new way the information they need to do so. What I am saying is that I think we’re spending a lot of energy in library instruction trying to ensure that all of our students won’t make mistakes when they do research — and that that’s counterproductive.
See, the thing that is the same about parenting is this – it makes a lot of sense to choose those places where your energy is best spent – and it’s just rarely best spent trying to convince your kid that consequences exist when he has never experienced them for himself. To do this, you have to do a lot of thinking for him and spend a lot of time imposing rules and consequences he’s going to think are arbitrary. And if you’re going to do that, shouldn’t you wait for a real life-or-death health and safety issue? Especially when it is so much easier and so much more authentic to convince him that consequences exist after he has experienced them.
And the thing that is different than parenting is this – with the slight exception of natural adult-related authority and good classroom management skills, for us the whole ballgame is what our students do with our teaching after they leave us – whether we’re talking about transcendent information literacy teaching that leads to powerful reflective thinkers and lifelong learners — or just about skills that they can apply to do well on that paper that’s due next week — success or failure for us is hardly ever about what happens when they are in a room with us. Some of the teaching parents do really is about making life at home, life in the family, better – in library instruction it’s always about making something, somewhere else better.
So I think we need to re-think our relationship to that somewhere else – connect our focus as teachers to what they’re learning, naturally and authentically out there — and not try and teach in advance in the classroom those things that life will teach them better. And if they’re not learning what they need to from natural consequences, from authentic feedback and meaningful responses to their work — then we need to be working on that level, with their teachers and employers and mentors.