Breaking out from ‘Enforced Independence’ – #rhizo14

rhizo Screen_Shot_2013-09-17_at_8.51.41_PMWhen I saw the title for the Week 2 topic – Enforcing Independence –  my immediate thoughts were ‘Oh no – here we go again – another one of Dave’s provocative statements’,  and ‘Of course you can’t ‘enforce’ independence’.

Other people in the P2PU forum seem to have had similar thoughts, some people have dismissed the idea out of hand and others appear to have completely ignored it, going off down their own rhizomatic paths. But Dave has given us an example of what he means by ‘enforced independence’ by sharing his syllabus for his f2f course ED366 Educational Technology and the Adult Learner, which he says is an example of how he tries to balance the enforcement.

Having read this document, I find myself, as with the topic ‘cheating as learning’ last week, not opposed to the underlying reasoning, but thinking that both ‘enforce’ and ‘independence’ are once again the wrong words.

By independence I assume we mean ‘capable of thinking or acting for oneself’ . Well yes we want learners to be able to do this. How would this be exemplified?

The thought that immediately comes to mind is that in nursery school we want little children to be able to put their own coats on, take themselves to the toilet and so on. But more than this we want them to be capable of deciding when they need to put a coat on and when they need to go to the toilet. And beyond this we want them to have the freedom to make their own choices and take the consequences of those choices, and this is what I would call learner autonomy – which I see as different to independence and more what I would aspire to.

Dependence is not necessarily a problem. Some learners, for example those with special needs, will always need to be dependent on others to support them, but they can still be autonomous – free to make their own choices.

And as some have already mentioned in the P2PU forum, we don’t necessarily want learners to be isolated from each other, but rather learn to learn through interdependence.

In Dave’s course that he has shared with us, learners seem to have some autonomy, some choices that they can make, but is there scope for more?  That would be my question. Ultimately we want learners to be able to make their own choices. This might mean that the learner chooses not to comply with course requirements if the learner thinks that is in his best interests. This level of autonomy is very challenging for teachers, who even when they build choices into the curriculum, still tend to have some sort of a surround safety net which they hope learners will not fall through. I used to admire those students who were able to say – ‘Sorry, but this is not for me’, recognized their own autonomy and acted on it removing themselves from the course – but of course this autonomy had a negative effect on my programme’s retention figures! Just in this one example you can see the tensions that autonomy can raise for a teacher.

Despite this, I would prefer the aspiration of autonomy rather than independence. Independence implies cutting the apron strings, but autonomy is not about casting adrift – more about freedom.

And I don’t think autonomy can be enforced – otherwise it wouldn’t be about choice!

I don’t think Dave has ‘enforced independence’ on his students. I think what he has done, as he is doing in this course, is to create the conditions in which learners have opportunities to exercise their autonomy. Autonomy is not black and white, but comes in degrees on a scale of less to more. We can’t make people autonomous or independent. Any attempt to do this would be to consolidate the teacher’s position as based on a whole set of power structures, further creating a reliance on the teacher for setting objectives, assessing progress and giving direction.

But we can model what we mean by independence and/or autonomous learning, as Dave is doing in this course. We can provide the opportunities and learning environment in which autonomy is fostered, but then we have to let learners make their own choices. You don’t need mature learners for this. One of the best places to see this interdependence and autonomy in action is in a nursery classroom, where the teaching approach is based on a High Scope Curriculum  and where

The most important segment of the daily routine is the plan-do-review sequence, in which children make choices about what they will do, carry out their ideas, and reflect upon their activities with adults and other children.

So autonomy and interdependence are the words for me – not ‘independence’ nor ‘enforce’.



10 thoughts on “Breaking out from ‘Enforced Independence’ – #rhizo14

  1. Simon Ensor January 23, 2014 / 5:55 pm

    Thanks for this interesting post Jenny.

    Autonomy is a very loaded word and is often associated completely erroneously with being alone.

    In the same way – independence to me does not mean absence of dependence on others – I agree on the importance of interdependence.

    The question here for me is enabling critical choice of one’s dependence/interdependence.

    Rhizo14 is a very welcome example of how freely chosen connection and association of ideas and people is an effective learning environment.

    The content is not primordial the open frame work of the conversation is.

    Predictable outcomes, year streaming, standardised testing is an industrial model designed for others’ ‘profit’.

    I am working on enabling students to open up their minds and their learning to the outside world to find personal value in their work and to give their best for the wider community.

    Enforcing independence is the ability of each and everyone of us to say NO!

    Cutting ties to people who need our support is counter-productive and nothing to do with nurturing independence or autonomy.

    The impression I have is that there has been a deliberate and sustained attempt to separate individuals, generations, communities, countries into target markets of passive consumers. It is time that we organised energetically against this alienation of people.

    The Life-long Kindergarten strikes me as an attractive model.

    When I see how my 5 year old is learning compared with my 10, and 11 yr old kids, I see that for this education system autonomy means being systematically schooled into compliance. ‘Autonomous consumer’ is a pretty unambitious social model for us to aim at producing.

  2. jennymackness January 23, 2014 / 6:09 pm

    Simon – I think we are pretty much in agreement – but this is a very sad comment, which I hope isn’t true in every instance

    >>I see that for this education system autonomy means being systematically schooled into compliance. ‘Autonomous consumer’ is a pretty unambitious social model for us to aim at producing.

    “Autonomous consumer’ – that is a thought provoking and rather depressing idea.

    Thanks for your comments.


  3. Simon January 23, 2014 / 6:25 pm

    I am not sad. I am hopeful that this is a self-destructive, unsustainable aberration. People intuitively know that this system is a)madness b)undesirable.

    Empires, civilizations, walls, tyrannies, dinosaurs have a tendency to disappear. I view things long, long term. I have the benefit of a very wide historical perspective on myself and the rest. Nothing is constant but change.
    Don’t be sad, be mad!

  4. jennymackness January 23, 2014 / 6:47 pm

    > Don’t be sad, be mad!

    Love it! 🙂


  5. Keith Hamon January 23, 2014 / 9:22 pm

    Well said, Jenny and Simon. I like the connection here to open spaces in which people can make their own choices, but then Jenny brings it back to an accountability to the ecosystem of the High Scope Curriculum, in which children make choices about what they will do, carry out their ideas, and reflect upon their activities with adults and other children. The children are free to do whatever, but must then reflect on their actions with others. They act, but always within a demanding context. This, I think, is interdependence, or independence within dependence. The language is difficult here because both independence and dependence carry such baggage in our cultures, but it is what keeps the freedom of the knowmad from becoming sociopathic.

  6. Christina Hendricks January 24, 2014 / 12:20 am

    I like your emphasis on autonomy over independence, in part due to the idea that we may not want to enforce the idea of learning only on one’s own.

    I only have time here for a quick thought (& am typing on phone, which is not fast!), and I haven’t thought this through carefully yet, but I wanted to ask this. It makes sense to say that one can’t enforce exercises of autonomy themselves or they wouldn’t be autonomous. But we can’t only just provide opportunities to express it, because we need also, I think, to help people develop their skills in doing things autonomously (thinking children here, but maybe adults too?) and in wanting to BE autonomous.

    Might it be possible to enforce practices that help people learn how to act autonomously, to see its value & feel motivated to act that way? Maybe this would be just for childhood development, but perhaps also for young adults in learning situations on which they have learned to be and want to be passive? Then it wouldn’t be a matter of forcing them to act autonomously (which would mean they’re not autonomous), but of getting to the point where they can and want to be so?

  7. dogtrax January 24, 2014 / 11:21 am

    This line resonated with me as a teacher: “This level of autonomy is very challenging for teachers, who even when they build choices into the curriculum, still tend to have some sort of a surround safety net which they hope learners will not fall through. ”
    Thank you.

  8. jennymackness January 24, 2014 / 3:54 pm

    Thank you Keith, Christina and Kevin for your visit and comments.

    Keith – thanks for your interesting observation about the High Scope Curriculum. I hadn’t seen the significance of that aspect of it before in terms of children’s place/role in society. Interesting to reflect on this.

    Christina – I’m impressed by how well you can type on a phone! I have a problem with the word ‘enforce’ which feels contradictory to autonomy. People can’t learn to make choices if they are not in a position to autonomously make those choices. But I can see that we, in teaching situations, can structure our learning environments to maximise autonomy and choice. A classroom (for whatever age group) can be structured to work on those principles, e.g. in High Scope nursery classrooms, children come in at the beginning of the day and the first thing they do is organise their planning board, i.e. they decide which activities, from a range on offer, they are going to work on during the day – in the sandpit, painting, looking at books, lego building etc. It is the way the classroom works – an expected and accepted way of working. These children are simply expected (not forced) to be autonomous and their teachers/schools believe that they can be. I can speak from personal experience of this many, many years ago – so it’s not new. Not sure if I have answered your question or if my example helps.

    Kevin – thanks for picking up on the ‘tricky’ bit. It’s getting that balance between autonomy and support right that is difficult.

  9. cinzia January 28, 2014 / 2:46 pm

    Your post helped me to shed some light into finding a meaning for the ‘enforcing independence’ statement. In the context of adult learning, where it is assumed that participants are independent and self-directed learners, we think they make their own choices about learning. But that’s not always true, also trends or technological changes can force people to make a choice about what they need to learn.
    Autonomy and interdependence are also my words!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  10. Keith Brennan January 30, 2014 / 2:50 pm

    Hi Jenny, and thanks for the interesting and thought provoing post.

    I’m going to take a swing at just a small part of this question. And it has to do with some fundamental assumptions about learner autonomy.

    It;s ofen assumed to be a good thing, and a good thing to aim for, and plan for in courses.

    There are contexts where it may not be. For example, a context where someone is focused on achieving a qualification quickly, and values speed and efficiency of content delivery over fosterering independent learning. So, someone brushing up on a professional qualification for entrance ointo a professional prganisation, someone developing a specific set of skills for a particualr work context or perceived skills shortage.

    Contexts where students are heavily invested in coprprate or employer perspectives on their qualification, and less on what we might like them to learn. We may disagree with their focus, but it’s a valid motivation, and they get to make that choice.

    There are also contexts where student autonomy is directly at odds with achieving learning or learning outcomes. We know that learners who have low subject domain expertise will face several problems if self directed. There will be a tendiencey to practice already known skills and avoid extending knowledge. Abandonment of courses of study is a larger issue, as is reduced motivation, and significantly reduced leqarning effieincies (there’s some evidence to indicate that, for example, in unguided constructivist settings learners will take 25% longer to learn than with direct instruction, and will have more misconceptions). It’s harder for a novice to learn in a self directed context where they are a subject novice. And it’s hard for someone to learn efficiently in a self-directed way if their assessment skills are not up to the task. Ad there’s also some evidence to indoicate that, even with relative subject expertise and assessment skills, complete freedom of choice tends to slow down rather than speed up learning.

    In these cases, we may decide to go for some form of shared control, where we present choice, but from limited options. Or we may decide to go for direct instruction, at least iuntil levels of competence are achieved which make degrees of autonomy worthwhile. or worthwhile pursuing.

    There;s also the issue of a student;s critical literacies, in temrs of assessing materials, and assessing their own learning. In cases where these are lacking, there’s reasonable evidence to indicate that a learner’s autonomy, or self-direction may well harm their learning – recent studies are showing some evidence that gaos in source materials assessment, gaps in self assessment, and gaps in learning bahviour alteration that adversely effect learning in self directed contexts are likely up to and including undergard levels.

    And there’s oodles of evidence, very depressingly, than when students asses their own levels of learning, or the suitability of courses of instruction to their own needs, they are often way off the mark. Time and again, stated learner preferences are shown to have no effect on actiual learning. amd students assessments of how much they felt they learned on a course fails to tally with what testing shows. A students assertion that something is not for them may very well be on the mark. But it also may not be.

    There are, it seems, many learning contexts in which autonomy is either not beneficial, or, perfectly reasonably, not on the table. There are contexts where it is key, or where in some domains it is key, and in others it’s an aim, and other’s where it’s a general aim, or long term goal. There are some contexts that will start off as almost completley lacking iin autonomy only to develop learner independce in various ways contextually. Andf there are some where it is unlikely to come up.

    I like how Bandura put it, and I;m going to parahphrase. But for subject novices, you need to design your instruction so it’s achievable and challenging, you need to be giving feedback often and regularly, and you, as the designer, needs to be the person who structures that, and alters the design as they alter. And, when they have achieved a certain level of expertise, you need to change tack, stop the structured direction, and let them apply the knolwedges, behaviours and meaninging in tasks, projects and contexts that are personally meaningful for them.

    There are times when the power structure of the subject expert setting goals, assessing them, giving direction, feedback, further material, and correction is key. There’s lots of evidence indicating all sorts of contexts where people learn faster, more, work harder and stay motivated when this is done well. A key part of this is having people knowing where they are going, why, how they will get there, and when. But lack of autonomy here isn;t necessarily an evil.

    Like almost any aspect of teaching, it;s about context, rather than philosophy. Who you are teaching (whatever that comes to mean) and what you are teaching are the things from which decisions about degrees of autonomy tend to flow. And some of those contexts will indicate that low levels of autonomy, and centralised direct insruction are the best method for your conext, others will indicate that high degrees of autonomy are the best method.

    Learner autonomy is not, at all, I think, a Unioversal good.

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