In a TED Talk a number of years ago, Sir Ken Robinson said he had toured many American classrooms and he’d seen a lot of teaching going on, but very little learning. This is in part because the vast majority of interactions in our classrooms only move in one direction–from the teacher to the student. If we are really serious about empowering our students and redesigning instruction, we need to learn to hear what they are saying and have authentic conversations about their learning experiences with them.
This sounds very simple, but it is actually one of the most complex things I have to do in class. Simple measurement tools are often inadequate to the task because the students themselves don’t understand what is or is not working for them. As such, they fail to provide any useful information about my, or my pedagogical strategy’s, effectiveness. It is truly often a situation of the blind leading the blind.
When I first started teaching, I remember talking to my late grandfather, who was also a college faculty member, and wondering out loud if I was making any difference whatsoever in my students’ learning journeys. He assured me that I was, but that I would almost never see the results of my efforts. If I was doing my job right, they might not recognize the benefit of what I was asking them to do for years after they graduated. At some point, however, many of them would hit a point where they realized that they were able to write a coherent argument in a memo or a letter of introduction and realize that, “Professor Haymes showed me how to do this.”
Reflecting back on my own educational journey, I recognized that this was true. There were many little things my professors made me do in my undergraduate and graduate careers that have continued to be critical to my ability to write and think at my current levels. They were, however, not obvious to me at the time and I would have been hard pressed to give them any meaningful feedback on what I was truly learning.
This lack of self-reflective capacity creates a difficult situation for me as a teacher. The heart of my struggle is not teaching my students content. It is teaching them how to learn and think. I want to teach them how to process information, not regurgitate it. This is much harder than explaining the benefits of a bicameral legislature or Separation of Powers. I cannot assume that everyone learns like I do. From hard experience, I’ve learned the opposite to be true. It’s therefore very difficult to discern what’s working and what’s not. Again, I cannot assume that my students know what’s good for them.
To paraphrase Moltke, no plan survives the battlefield. We all go into the semester with plans about how our classes will flow and operate. If we are conscientious, a large part of that plan will include the success of our students. For that reason, my class is a constant emergent design process as I assess and change my approaches to teaching and learning. In order for me to make improvements, I have to carefully study what is going on, what is working and what is not, and apply approaches from a wide range of sources to my pedagogical and class management strategy.
In her 2003 book “Rethinking University Teaching” Diana Laurillard developed her concept of “conversational frameworks” as a critical underpinning for effective learning. On the subject of feedback, she says on page 51, “action without feedback is completely unproductive for a learner.”
She refers to student learning, but if you consider your class to be an ongoing design project, as I do, the teacher is as much the learner as the students. The fundamental purpose of a class is to assess what is working and what is not for its inhabitants. In order to do this, you have to become a student of your students. I have goals in the class, but if they can’t in some way relate to those goals 2/3 of the way through the class, I need to make adjustments to what I am doing.
Hearing becomes even more challenging if you are also trying to engage in empowered learning. Our students are the products of the systems of learning that preceded us. These systems usually don’t reward novelty (most systems don’t). Most students have been conditioned by them to be receivers of knowledge, not creators of it. Any disruption of this pattern is going to meet with some resistance. Effective conversations about what is going on in the classroom are therefore essential to the reinvention of teaching.
It is easy to get wrapped up in complex machinations as I try to outwit my students’ worst instincts and try to get them to do activities that are good for them. Getting them to reflect on their own shortcomings as learners is critical to understanding what is going on. As Laurillard implies, this has to be an ongoing “conversation,” and so several times a semester, I put a “reflective stop” onto the class and have a conversation about what is working for them and what isn’t. I explain the logic around my activities and respond to their concerns about the inevitable compromises that the parameters of a 5-, 12-, or 16-week class put on their ability to become better students and my ability to help them. I then make adjustments based on what I’m hearing.
Communication happens in many different forms between student and teacher. In order to reach them, we must first transcend listening to get to hearing, and, by extension, begin to understand what is going on in their heads. Informal feedback is central to this process for both the students and for us as teachers. We must always be sensitive to the reality that no one, teacher or student, learns without hearing first.
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