In the song ‘There’s a Hole in the Bucket' we are introduced to Liza and Henry as they overcome the difficulties caused by a bucket with a hole in it. Liza sets Henry the task of collecting water but as we soon find out this is no simple task. What the song reveals is a common scenario that occurs when a learner is unable to overcome the difficulties presented by a task and they do not have a set of skills to guide them towards solving a unique problem. The story of Liza and Henry reveals much about learners and offers insights into what can go wrong when their teachers fail to equip them adequately.
The song begins with Liza presenting Henry with a learning opportunity based around him fetching a pail of water equipped only with a bucket with a hole in it. Henry must overcome numerous challenges along the way and from the experience is expected to learn skills for problem solving. Liza is his teacher and will at the conclusion of the task assess his learning. Rapidly a pattern of interactions emerges and this reveals much about Henry’s disposition towards learning. Time and time again Henry confronts a challenge, the initial discovery of the hole, the straw that is too long, the knife that is blunt, the sharpening stone that is dry and at each turn his response is a cry for help. ‘But Liza, there’s a hole in the bucket’. At each challenge Liza responds to Henry in the same manner providing him with a prompt that guides him directly to the solution. ‘Then fix it Dear Henry’, ‘Then sharpen it Dear Henry’.
Henry's pattern of interactions and inability to cope with the complexities leads us to draw a number of possible conclusions. Henry could be seen as lazy and manipulative, as a risk averse learner who is unwilling to take on challenges. But these explanations do not explain how Henry came to have his present approach to learning, a more complete explanation will also address his history as a learner and identify the role that Liza has played as his teacher. This reading of the events allows us to see Henry as a student who has been poorly prepared for challenge based learning and is unable to confront novel learning situations with confidence. More than just this, Henry exhibits classic signs of learned helplessness and Liza continues to reinforce this through her guidance. Henry has learned that ultimately Liza will answer any questions and thus solve any problems he may face. Instead of prompting Henry towards solving his own problems Liza provides quick answers. The result is that Henry has developed no skills for thinking and no disposition towards thinking.
At the end of the experience with the bucket still not repaired, Liza administers her assessment. Henry has hastily filled the bucket with water and presents it to Liza so she may measure the quantity and quality of the water that is in it. (Neither Henry nor Liza can adequately explain why the quality of the water matters in this assessment) Fortunately for Henry the water level is measured immediately after the unit is complete and despite the obvious leak Liza records that the bucket is 75% full and that the quality of the water in the bucket is excellent. Henry passes the ‘Fetching Water in a Bucket’ unit and both he and Liza are pleased with the result.
At the same time another student in Henry’s class has engaged with the same problem but in a vastly different manner. This student having discovered the hole applied a well-developed disposition towards learning and broad set of thinking skills. This student has a positive attitude towards failure and sees it as an important step towards learning, an essential element in problem solving. This student conducted an independent inquiry, tested options and eventually discovered that the hole could be repaired using a combination of tree sap, juice from a local fruit and the crushed fibre from a commonly occurring vine. This composite material repaired the hole in the bucket restoring it to its original condition. At the time of the assessment the bucket was found to be 85% full, a quantity the student had calculated as sufficient for the task and consistent with what was known about the carrying capacity of the bucket’s handle; a factor that had been explored when seeking to understand how the bucket had been holed in the first place. Had Liza revisited the bucket three weeks later she would see that this student’s bucket is still holding water. Liza would also discover that this student’s solution is now being marketed by the student as a low toxic, sustainable and locally produced multipurpose repair kit suitable for use in the rapidly expanding DIY market.
On the assessment both students receive a passing grade. The quality of water in both buckets is equal, unsurprising as the water came from the same source and completely unrelated to that task. (A little like accurate spelling on a mathematics assessment) Henry scores 75% and our second student scores slightly more at 85%. Henry is still unable to solve the bucket problem and in the following year when he is faced with another design problem but no longer has a teacher who enables his learned helplessness fails to meet expectation. His parents wonder what has gone wrong and blame his new teacher for the result. They wish he still had that lovely Miss Liza who he connected with so well and where his results were so much better.
Our other student is now in a class where challenge is the norm, the teacher presents students with scenarios that extend and refine their thinking skills and allows them to explore unique solutions that often do not initially work. Through a process that incorporates metacognition as reflective practice the students gain confidence in their ability to handle ‘wicked problems’ and they enjoy finding their own. They learn to collaborate and develop a diverse set of thinking skills that they enact within their disposition for thinking and inside a culture that values long-life learning.
Are we going to prepare a class full of Henrys? Is it enough that students learn to immediately seek help when they do not know the answer? Is it enough to pass the test, if the test does not measure our ability to apply skills that matter now and into the future? Is it OK to assess students immediately after a unit and be happy with the results even if we know the learning is ‘leaking’ out and that the results on the same test would be much reduced only a short time later? Should our students expect more from us and do our future generations not deserve a better start than Henry has been provided with?
by Nigel Coutts