Play with your food, so long as you eat it

February 27, 2004

Students, like babies, must learn the art of self-feeding, but don't rush them, or they will never properly digest information, says Holly Smith.

As a new parent, one pressing question is how to move beyond spoon-feeding my infant son. As a lecturer, I see the similarities between my experience of encouraging independent feeding and encouraging independent learning in students.

My baby is one year old and is capable of feeding himself. When motivated by chocolate pudding, he can accurately convey a loaded spoon to his open mouth and cram food in. Students can also be hungry for knowledge when it is their favourite topic or pastime. But babies, like students, are inconsistent. My son sometimes refuses to feed himself and wants only to play. We parents are inconsistent too: sometimes we encourage him to feed himself, but on other occasions, when we don't have time, spoon-feeding is easier and quicker.

Spoon-feeding indefinitely is not very satisfying for anyone, but the alternative can be messy. When students learn by doing things for themselves, it can be messy, too. They may get confused and frustrated and make mistakes. It may be hard for teachers to watch them struggling without intervening, but everyone has to be clear where responsibilities lie.

Teachers have to trust students.

As parents, we offer our baby a balanced meal - usually what we are eating but cut into smaller chunks. As teachers, we devise the curriculum for students but have to accept that they may not learn exactly what we want them to learn. They are selective with our offerings, having a taste for learning one thing over another. If we encourage them to pursue their own interests, it is our responsibility to make sure that they will not be punished for this in assessments. Dissertations, projects, designing their own experiments or making up their own essay titles are all ways students can pursue their interests.

If our baby is chasing food around the plate, his father and I sometimes take a second spoon, load it and leave it within his reach. If he wants to eat, he can pick it up. If it is really the process of scraping the plate that he is enjoying he can carry on with that. However, he eats less than if we had spoon-fed him that last mouthful.

Students need time to make sense of material for themselves. Teachers may find they cannot cover as much, but they should be trading breadth for depth. An unfortunate result of spoon-feeding students is the amount of regurgitated material that appears during exams. By letting students learn for themselves, they may digest it more thoroughly.

Students also need consistency. When we set up our new feeding regime, we had a chat with the staff at our baby's nursery and agreed that we would all stop spoon-feeding him. In a similar vein, colleagues and even the university must share the same approach. Independent learning is often seen as something that students might progress towards by their final year, but by that time they have well-established expectations. If everyone starts at the beginning of the first year setting students simple tasks such as library searches, and writing reviews of books or websites, they may become confident, independent learners.

After only a few days on our baby's new self-feeding regime, the mess is already decreasing. The food is still poked, pinched, sucked, discarded and hurled, but more is eaten. We are now beginning to see some of the benefits. We eat together, the same food at the same time, sitting around the same table. My baby likes to feed me, too. He holds out some half-chewed morsel and is delighted if I take it and eat it.

Taking the spoon-feeding metaphor literally implies that students should "grow up" and take responsibility for their own learning. But students are already adults, and the relationship between student and teacher is very different from that between parent and child. Parents have overwhelming, total responsibility for their helpless infant. Teachers are responsible for organising the curriculum and for trying to reach a shared understanding with their students about their respective roles. If teachers take their responsibilities seriously and provide the students with opportunities to learn for themselves without fear, then neither should feel they are involved in spoon-feeding.

Stopping spoon-feeding is not easy, but if everyone is prepared to put the effort in, it is worth it. You might be offered a tasty morsel and find that, in a classroom where everyone is learning together, you can learn too.

Holly Smith is a lecturer in the department of education and professional development at University College London.

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