An EDgility Practice

A necessary component of independent, self-regulated learning is transparency. Without transparency, we breed dependence.

My family often assumes the role of navigator when I drive because my spatial thinking is a mess. Left and right are still difficult for me in my 50s, I doubt that I’m going to be any good at visualizing city maps any time soon.

They have adopted the strategy of only telling me the next turn and not too soon before it. Smart on their part, but in addition to being spatially challenged, I get really impatient if I can’t see the whole picture, too. Something in me needs to have a picture of the whole trip, the overall plan, what we are likely to see along the way. (Goodness, I need to thank them more often for putting up with me.)

This is true for me at work, too. And I bet it’s true for most of us. We are all willing to take the next turn, go to the next meeting, and work on the next project - especially if we know where those next steps are taking us and what the goal is. Moreover, just as we like to know the goal and the path, at least in generalities, we also like to know why that path was chosen. It not only feels good to be included, it helps us make good decisions about the work we do while on that path. Transparency is a good thing.

We can identify with a lack of transparency by imagining a worker on an assembly line. While at a German university I worked at a company that bound and shipped the catalogue for a store called Quelle. The name means source, and that job was both the source for much needed cash and long stretches of mind numbing boredom. I stood at a certain spot on the line, ready to stack catalogues when a problem arose further up the line. Every now and then a warning buzzer went off and the main belt jerked to a stop. That’s when I started stacking half-made catalogues. I never knew when I’d start working. I was just there, dependent on the machine. Some nights I’d be shifted to a different post. I never knew when that would happen, nor why.

We act differently when we know only a small slice of what is happening. Our investment in what we are doing sinks. We also can’t offer much in the way of improvement, because what you might suggest when you don’t have much information is likely to be wrong. Being wrong in turn tends to confirm that you shouldn’t be given more information, because it seems rather obvious that your ideas aren’t worth much. What an awful feedback loop.

Yet we see this feedback loop in education all too often.

On a system-wide scale it might be the administration delivering decisions that, to teachers, have arrived out of the blue. Solutions to problems that didn’t exist, for example, or materials, technology, or professional development that no one was asking for. I’m sure we all have examples of this type of lack of transparency.

At the classroom level, the level we teachers can actually influence, we might like to try a little transparency. If your students come to class and have little idea what they will be learning that day, and how you’ll be teaching, they remain dependent on you. I have a sneaking feeling that this may be a desired outcome for some teachers. Students that are dependent on you need you, they validate your work. Resist this if you can.

There’s a mental health problem called Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy. This is when a caregiver may actually make up or cause an illness to someone in their care because the caregiver is therefore needed. I’m suggesting here that a lack of transparency might be a mild educational version of this syndrome. A pedagogical illness. If we are making students dependent on us, and especially if we start deriving personal satisfaction in knowing that students are dependent on us, we need to reevaluate what we are doing.

Our job, as we see it, is to provide students opportunities to learn and grow independently. This is intertwined with a growth mentality, a factor that influences life-long learning, and arguably the most important thing any teacher or mentor can do. Our deepest satisfaction should come from sending into the world students who have benefitted from us so much that they no longer need us.

And an enabling condition for that type of learning is transparency.

Paul Magnuson
Paul Magnuson
Educational Thought Leader

We can do school better by supporting authentic learning.