Critical Friendship

The following is a dialogue between Laura McRae and Marianne Vander Dussen, both in their first year of the Master’s program. We decided to build our blog post to capture the conversational quality that has enabled us to act as critical friends and editing partners.

MVD: In my first term, I noticed that Laura was in all three of my classes, which I thought was a fun coincidence. Initially, her posts intimidated me; she always had her responses ready right at the beginning of the week, and reflected a high level of writing ability and critical thought. After a few weeks, the isolating effect of working alone in an online program was starting to take its toll on me, and I was desperate to connect with other students. I reached out to Laura to see if she would be interested in partnering with me on an assignment for our Research Methods class, and I’ve been working with her as my accountability partner and sounding board ever since. It was a little scary… I was afraid she’d say no!

LM: I was definitely thinking along the same lines as Marianne. Her posts were always exceptionally insightful and thought-provoking, and almost poetic in style. She is an excellent writer, which intimidated me at first! I was very happy when she reached out to me, as it gave me a chance to get to know her as a real person rather than to keep seeing her as another paragraph on my screen – a side effect of doing an online program that I am still not 100% comfortable with. Having Marianne to bounce ideas off of and to share learning experiences as well as frustrations with has definitely helped me feel more connected to my learning environment, and has helped me be accountable to more than just myself (which, personally, I need in order to remain on-task and on-time).

MVD: I agree. The accountability piece is huge. We worked together to set deadlines for each other for drafts and final pieces. Knowing that I had someone who I respected who was waiting to review my piece made me much more inspired to push through and get the work done. It meant that through my Fall and Winter terms, I was able to stay on top of my work and not allow it to pile up. It was also very helpful to have another set of eyes, in terms of catching APA errors, and noticing where there were gaps in the logic or in the supporting research. I would always look forward to her feedback, because I would much rather have a critical friend alert me to inconsistencies or areas of need than discover it after reading the grading professor’s comments!

LM: Agreed! Style was a big part of it too. Knowing Marianne would review my work without judgment made it much easier to ask about specific spots in assignments that I was having trouble with stylistically. I also enjoyed having an insider to work with – a new perspective on what our professors were after, if my work reflected the course expectations, and how she thought our professors would react to my work. Obviously we would never approach an assignment from the exact same perspective, so reading her assignments, and getting thorough feedback, helped me gain new perspectives, new ideas (which we sometimes shared) and a better understanding of course material. I wonder if we had ‘graded’ each other’s work (like we did in our Research Methods course) if we would have come out with more from the experience of working with a critical friend?

MVD: I wonder what that would look like… what we do with each other is so completely subjective. Although we both work within the context of the assignment structure whenever we’re swapping our work, our viewpoints are always tempered by the fact that it is completely and totally our own thoughts and opinions. I think that provides a layer of safety; when I’m giving my piece over to Laura, I’m not expecting her to take on any responsibility whatsoever for its academic success. Having another set of eyes is really just for my own improvement and betterment; she’ll ask questions, note areas where clarification is required. She’s incredibly thoughtful and thorough. But we’ve both released each other from any kind of responsibility about the paper’s grading once it’s been submitted. Our work is just that… our own, even though we’ve had the opportunity to share, tighten, and hone.

LM: I completely agree with this, but I also feel that Marianne’s comments and suggestions have always helped me to achieve better grades (even though I never held her accountable for my grades)! I also feel that having Marianne as a critical friend has helped me overcome a lot of my anxieties about taking Master’s level courses, specifically in relation to ‘impostor syndrome’. When I started my first semester, I felt overwhelmed and like I was not keeping up academically – when Marianne reached out to me as a critical peer, I gained confidence in my position in the program and insight into the mind of another new graduate student. I think the EGS blog offers a lot of the same social benefits of having a critical peer – in that it helps connect students to the program, but I would definitely suggest going a step further and finding a critical friend. I definitely would not have had as much success this year without Marianne’s insight and support!

MVD: As we move into the next stage of our Master’s work (we’re both pursuing the thesis route) it helps to know that we’ll both be there to empathize with each other’s struggles, and also be willing to unconditionally celebrate successes. The level of detachment that exists, since we haven’t ever met each other in person, serves us well on the more objective front whenever I want honest, clear feedback, but in many ways we’ve overcome those barriers of distance because we’re able to share our stories with each other without fear of judgment. Earlier this week, I was sharing some of the challenges I’ve come up against as a researcher; I’m nearly halfway through my data collection, and sometimes when I listen to the recordings of my research sessions, I get embarrassed or down on myself because I didn’t facilitate as well as I could have, or I allowed a conversation to drift on too long before redirecting it. Laura reminded me not to be too critical, and suggested envisioning myself as a third party listening to the research as opposed to being thrown off by my own voice. It was solid advice, and helped immensely. I think the secret to our success as critical partners is empathy. We’ve both independently selected almost identical courses (5 out of 6 were the same), we’re both choosing thesis, and we’re both pushing through our own respective life challenges. Her ability to manage her workload is an inspiration, and helps me break free from moments when I’d rather watch cat videos than do actual work.

LM: I couldn’t have summarized our partnership better! Marianne is lighting the way for me as she collects data and does field work, while I am still in the process of acquiring a thesis supervisor and team… Knowing she will be there for me as I begin to research and collect data is comforting – it will be a long process for both of us, and yes, cat videos are tempting, but we will keep our course!

MVD: Moving forward, I think anyone who needs ongoing support (and really, who doesn’t?) would benefit from finding a critical friend.

What we would personally look for is:

  • Someone who completes work at a pace that matches yours… were they the first to comment? The last? Find someone who has similar working speed to avoid frustration.
  • Someone whose writing style speaks to you and engages you.
  • Someone who is able to take a critical approach in discussion, while remaining tactful.
  • Someone whose interests parallel or complement your own – (i.e., literacy and FSL complement each other, or with a similar preference for methodology)
Avoid this problem...find someone in your area of interest!

Avoid this problem…find someone in your area of interest!

Notes – EGS meeting (April 9th, 2015)

A big thank you to all who participated in this week’s Education Graduate Student meeting!

Ellen Martin facilitated this week’s article discussion and presented the group with several theoretical frameworks representing specific levels of student-centred learning. More specifically, these frameworks were divided into three sub-categories including: learning centred on students, learning centred on teachers, and learning centred on the reciprocal student-teacher relationship. Many related topics were discussed including: the hidden curriculum, un-schooling, the importance of curriculum and standards, and several perceived unsuccessful methods to teaching and learning.

Further, the following potential pedagogical solutions were offered to ameliorate both teaching and learning:

• Offering student choice.

• Ensuring that instruction and learning is meaningful, authentic, and relevant to all students.

• Reducing class-sizes to allow for more student directed learning, project-based learning, and true inquiry.

After Ellen’s wonderful article discussion, the group’s focused shifted to gender differences in the current education system. Among many influencing factors that were brought up, the following stood out:

  1. Sex as a biologically constructed factor; gender as a socially constructed factor.
  2. Perhaps gender differences can be attributed to adults’ preconceptions of gender and gender appropriateness, not those of young children.

This week’s discussions permitted a respectful debate and a variety of perspective adding a wealth of richness to presented ideas and themes.

The next EGS meeting will take place Thursday, April 23rd from 6-7pm (EST), and will be hosted by Michelann Parr and Marianne Vander Dussen. We will be offering Skype again to accommodate all distance students. We hope to see you there!

Summary and Notes – EGS Meeting (March 26th)

This past week’s EGS meeting was facilitated by Amy Dickerson, and centred around the theme of play-based learning. The next grad meeting will be Thursday April 9th from 6-7pm EST, led by Ellen Martin. The following notes were taken by Melissa Kenney, which reflect the organic flow of conversation that occurred. We are looking forward to our next meeting (although Understanding Education students may be unable to attend as it coincides with the real-time sessions). Hope to see you there!

Link to the Article

Article discussion by Amy:

  • Dualism between work and play is the article– there should be a balance between this in the curriculum.
  • The open-ended experiences and open-ended experience (such as play and exploration)– how can we find the balance in the curriculum?
  • “Work is work and play is play” as opposed to integrating; this is seen with older kids in particular. I do school and then I get free time; the free time is their play. This is the dualism; we need academics over play, and this is how it is running at the moment.
  • The Doll Example (p.234); how the play itself can lead to the achievement in the classroom. How can this be carried through to higher grades?
  • Older grades play can be group based teaching; is this really what play is defined as? The definition of play is and can be different from many others.
  • Play doesn’t look the same in kindergarten and grade 7, which makes things more complex.
  • The article was very black and white; either play or no play, work or play either happens, and he does not feel that it is being done.
  • There is so much stigma around play about how aimless it is. There are so many activities in the different grades that have some sort of play in them. Transformative exploration can be linked to play and learning.
  • Developmental benefits of risky play à children who are willing to take physical risks on the playground will take similar risks in the learning environment. If they are allowed to burn out their energy in play outside, they become better learners in the classroom.
    • Adventure playgrounds being built in the U.K.
    • The benefits of letting kids manage their own risks have been shown to be great, and the adventure playgrounds seem to be beneficial
  • Because recess is a novelty or reward, will they be interested in this if it is offered the whole day? Because it would become the norm to be involved in their work, this recess would not be seen as such a big and important part of their day (their relief).
  • If you can make play authentic, meaningful, and relevant they will remember it and it will be the point of learning.
  • Kids should have a right to ask “why are we doing this?”

play based learning quote - piaget

What does it mean to socially construct knowledge from the process of learning? 

  • Give kids the tools and they will make meaning of it.
  • Constructivism will make it authentic, meaningful, and relevant.
  • If you don’t make it relevant, they’ll forget it. Kids can also Google anything; they need to learn how to critically think, how to conduct research, etc. Why should they have to remember dates since we have access to all the information?
  • Self-organized learning environments– throw your kids into a computer lab and tell them to figure things out. Kids will mingle and group together, and the depth of understanding they will have will be phenomenal.
    • You can do more in less time by letting the kids organize their own learning.
  • Kids know and order themselves according to how they learn and their own level of learning.
  • Nurturing acceptance of failure as a process!
  • Kids shouldn’t feel scared to get the wrong answer.
  • Students may blame their disability if they have one which leads to the question: Labeling them that early– is it doing them a disservice?
  • Shouldn’t judge students by their peer group either
  • High schools in particular are stigmatizing students based on their choice in friends, and it is incredibly silly.
  • You are influencing lives right from the get-go; these students will listen to what you have to say and take it to heart.
  • We seem to be reflecting after everything we do now, and there is hope that the younger generations reflect on what they say to these kids in order to catch anything that they say that isn’t appropriate.