Control and Learning

Having attended many seminars and workshops, I have come to recognize that a learning session could be exciting or boring. It could also be frightening and overwhelming, especially when there is a vast disparity between a speaker’s frame of reference and that of the participants.

Almost always, participants in a learning session become disheartened by not being allowed to experience a sense of control over the process and the overall environment of learning.

Basic need

While attempting to control something or someone is seen as not very healthy, experiencing a sense of control is crucial to human existence. An individual who does not feel that he is in control of things will constantly fear the next possible event in his life. This relates directly to a sense of efficacy – the belief that one can effect positive changes in and around himself.

The belief in the ability to accomplish something is more important than the ability itself. This explains why people can sometimes teach themselves a new trade or trick even though no one expects them to be able to do so because they are not perceived to have the necessary abilities.

Individuals with a high level of efficacy believe in their potential to accomplish a task. The strong belief motivates them to do everything possible to gain mastery. Mastery, in return, brings about a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, progressing into a feeling of being in control as mastery affects, and is affected by, achievements.

Like other needs, the need for control over one’s own environment and life experiences is necessarily a basic psychological need that empowers an individual to become confident in accomplishing challenging tasks in life. Without it, one feels disempowered. Disempowerment is the leading cause for frustration, underperformance and lack of interest or motivation.

Case in point

Notice the facial expressions, body language and willingness to strike and keep a conversation among passengers in an airplane that is about to take off from a particular destination for another. One could conclude that most passengers would look resentful and uptight. I have travelled by air many times and this is the pattern that I have observed on all flights.

However, the opposite is true for the same passengers when the airplane is about to land at the destination (arrival). As the airplane approaches the terminal, people stand up, smile at each other, talk more, and present a more pleasant and positive aura compared to when they started. Why is this so?

The answer lies in the fact that passengers don’t feel a sense of control over their journey. In their minds, they have placed their lives in the hands of pilots and flight attendants whom they don’t know well enough to trust.

This is a good example of when the “sense of control” is completely taken away from individuals and the only way to feel a certain amount of control is by knowing more about the journey, getting updates from the pilot, walking around in the airplane, and, for people like me, sitting by the window to make sure that we are still flying.

The moment an airplane lands at its destination, the passengers experience an exhilarated sense of freedom that comes from the feeling of being in control of their own safety. They become happier because they are able to deliberately choose how safety is defined and pursued.

Application for learning

In the classroom, ensuring that students experience a sense of control over their learning is an essential ingredient for success. I have seen many students who initially possess zero ability but shoot up almost instantly when they are allowed to be in control of their own learning. There are several ways to make this a possibility:

Incorporate students’ voice into teaching: Listen to students and take into consideration what they have got to say about what to learn, how to learn, and how to assess learning. When students’ voices are heard, and when their suggestions are gratefully incorporated into teaching, they feel on top of things.

Focus on mastery: Although students differ in abilities, they are similar when it comes to needing to experience a sense of control. One sure way to help students feel in control of learning is by helping them gain competency in lessons.

Often, this would imply providing individual attention to a struggling student. While teachers may argue that this is difficult and impractical, we should not forget that a jump-start (short-term cognitive scaffolding), rather than a long haul of direct instruction, is sufficient to empower a child.

Provide opportunities for problem-solving: Students who are engaged in problem-solving (academic or non-academic) become independent thinkers, responsible citizens and sensitive human connectors. These characteristics provide room for personal growth and an expansion for the sense of being in control of oneself and one’s life experiences

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