Long ago a wise woman presented me with an opportunity and concluded by saying “this is an invitation, not an expectation.” I cannot tell you how many times over the years my mind has gone back to that simple yet eloquent phrase. Teachers need to have expectations of their students – high expectations, in fact. But we educators need to remember that we have to create an environment that welcomes the students, invites them in and then allows them to choose to participate. Encouraging participation is also needed. Of course, we expect great things of our kids but we can’t actually force them to engage, we can only make the invitation so accessible and enticing that they ultimately choose to take advantage of the offer.
Recently I was modeling a Visual Thinking Strategies lesson for a colleague. (According to the VTS website, VTS “is a method initiated by teacher-facilitated discussions of art images and documented to have a cascading positive effect on both teachers and students.”) I anticipated this would be the only time I would be modeling the approach for my colleague so I felt the need to put everything into that demonstration that I could for his benefit. Because of that pressure, I forgot about the power of the invitation vs. the expectation and how encouraging participation is connected to it.
One of the beautiful things about VTS is its accessibility. I have heard from other practitioners and trainers of the approach that over time even those students who are most reticent to speak up because of issues like language limitations, a history of school failure, or an inability to access the activity, have ultimately become active participants in the process because most students can look at an image and state an observation about what they see. As soon as students catch on that all they have to do to join the discussion is name something they see in the image, they become willing participants. As their confidence, investment and experience grow, the depth of their contributions tends to grow as well. Encouraging participation what works on them.
When I was facilitating this session for my colleague, after the students had discussed the first image and we had moved on to the second image, I thanked those students who were raising their hands but explained I wanted to make sure that all the students had a chance to share their ideas and waited for new hands to be raised. By doing this, I presented the invitation to those who had not yet accepted. However, when new hands didn’t go up, I started to put students on the spot. With that, I crossed the line from an invitation to expectation.
For some children, I think this actually worked. I read in the smiles that followed their contributions a sense of pride or satisfaction or even joy at having contributed an observation that was given equal importance to all the other responses provided that day. However, there was a least one child if not two or three that I worried had been turned off from or possibly intimidated by my tactic. After the session, I approached one little boy who never did contribute an answer and asked him if he’d had something to say that he hadn’t wanted to share with the whole class. He shared with me an opinion he had about the first image. I thanked him for telling me about it and invited him to feel free to share that with the whole class the next time his class was looking at images.
I don’t know if that small exchange will help this young man feel more comfortable next time around or if that conversation provided an opening back into the process for him. I shared my concerns with my colleague later so he could learn from my mistake. I so hope my colleague will have patience with the process and offer this rich activity in the spirit of invitation without expectation and encouraging participation so that once all the students have decided for themselves to accept the invitation, the deeper learning can naturally begin.