On negotiating difference: When your goals and the learner’s goals collide
by Alexandra Martinez
The question in this essay is - when should a mentor try to push a learner to study more than he or she desires?
As I walked into our partnership, Dan* opened up the internet and his email to see our lesson plan that I had attached and sent him, as we start most meetings. As he was doing this, I decided to make my move. Dan often writes to his sister and I have noticed that his typing could use improvement.
"Why don't you put your thumbs on the space bar, so we can practice using all the keys and type in a more cohesive way," I suggested.
"My hands are too big, it won't work."
"Sure it will- let's try."
Dan reluctantly put his hands on the keys, complained about not being able to see the letters and quickly removed his hands. I try again, "Come on- let's practice. It will make working on the computer so much easier."
The above experience summarizes one of the main dilemmas I have been trying to negotiate in my placement: when to push and when to step back. For my praxis in this course, I am partnered with an adult full-time employee from dining services who has taken both the Computing I and Computing II TLI courses. Because he has already been active in the TLI, he comes to class with certain expectations of what our partnership should be like and has already learned all of the things he feels he needs to know. He is very happy with where he is now, so it has been difficult for me to navigate the boundaries between pushing him and waiting until he pushes himself.
I want Dan to get the most out of our meetings as possible, and therefore want to push his learning, yet I don't want him to become too frustrated and shut down, backtracking on our progress. This dilemma has brought about many questions for me to navigate in my placement. When does helping become interfering, and what should you do when what is important to the learner and what you think is important for the learner to know collide? How do you negotiate these relationships and the line between helping and interfering? How do motives play into this negotiation? And when is it important to listen and when should one offer active support and guidance?
In order to create a positive partnership, it is important to build on the relationship and let the learning happen. It is also important to remember that the learning could be happening without your recognition. Learning may not necessarily take place in the materials, but instead, from the lesson itself. Sometimes not helping is the best teaching you can do. I find that in partnerships it is often easy to become caught up in the lesson and the specificities of what we need to work out and learn. But, it is important to ask what you are really getting out of the lesson and if the material is really the most important thing gained from the partnership. It is important to take a step back every once in a while and really figure out what is working and what needs improvement in your partnership.
As my partner has already undergone two previous computing partnerships, he already knows a good deal of basic computing knowledge and volunteered for our partnership because he wanted to expand on his knowledge. However, I feel as though he is happy with the information he already knows and when I push him to do more, he takes no interest. On the day that I had pushed him to use the space bar and shift key, he became frustrated and exclaimed that he didn't need to learn how to type fast because "I only use the computer when I have a lot of time and I don't need to be in a hurry, and I don't need to use the shift key because I only write emails to my sister and she knows how I write." I was a little taken aback by this comment as I have always been interested in learning and for me, education is really a lifelong process that opens up opportunities, and I hadn't ever really thought about the possibility of working with a learner who has no interest in expanding on his current knowledge. This allows for multiple interpretations. Maybe he is afraid of failing, and doesn't want to be judged for his current knowledge, or maybe he's feeling embarrassed that he hasn't learned this before, or he's not interested in learning how to type, or genuinely believes that this isn't an important skill. Because this scenario (and practically all others in mentor relationships) offers multiple interpretations, it can be difficult to decide the best course of action.
One difficult thing in any mentoring partnership is interpretations of the relationship. What one partner might see as really working in the partnership, the other partner might not see as working. Additionally, it is hard for me to interpret everything in my partnership- all of my interactions. For all I know, this partnership may be entirely beneficial for him and I'm making a big deal about nothing. Because it is often difficult to discern where the other partner is coming from, it is difficult to figure out how you can help and change the situation and what actions you need to take.
This made me wonder, Can a teacher empower a learner so much as to really make them want to/appreciate learning? How much agency and enthusiasm for the lesson has to come from the learner? This idea of needing to inspire the learner really relates to our main topic of the course, empowering learners, as helping the learner to progress and really become interested in learning in order to expand their knowledge and open up opportunities; you are empowering the learner. This idea of empowerment can be applied to all educational settings; yet extra classroom teaching is special in that it often targets certain students, who need more individualized attention. Because the teacher is working so closely with the student, they can develop a lesson and a way of teaching that will help the learner grow and develop as a learner.
I have been exploring different ways of boosting Dan's desire to learn and believe that the best thing to do is really zero in on the relationship and the student in particular to develop ways to pique the learner's curiosity and interest. It is often said that, "People learn best when they learn what draws their curiosity (Herman and Mandel 27)," therefore it is necessary to choose lessons that will pique the learner's interest, creating an environment that makes him feel comfortable and willing to push his knowledge further. It is important to create a space in which the learner will want to explore and embrace their uncertainty, and where they will seek out your help in developing their skills.
*name has been changed for confidentiality