(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 1)

This is the latest blog entry that I wrote for the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at the University of Utah.

What would it look like if we arrived to class on Day One with merely a hint of a syllabus? Well, the folks in CTLE might jump all over us! Wait, I am the ‘folks’ in CTLE and yet, I arrived to my CTLE 6000 course with a hint of a syllabus this semester. Let’s call it a ‘pedagogical experiment’ inspired by one of the core texts for the course: Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer (2002). The basic premise is that students take more responsibility for their learning and become self-regulated when they are actually given some control over their learning… what a concept!Can you remember the last time you walked into a course and the instructor asked you … about you? Well, yes, maybe you can. But in addition, can you remember the last time the instructor redesigned her nicely prepackaged course and actually integrated the information from the little 3×5 card about youinto her course to target your learning goals and build upon your existing background knowledge and experiences? If you can, then please share those experiences with us because that would make us smile!I, for one, actually can’t remember a time in my many years as a student (undergraduate or graduate) that an instructor gave the students a voice in the course design. Sure, we could develop our own projects ultimately, but we had no say in when they were due, how they were submitted, what the grade weight would be, etc. When I began reading about such an approach, it seemed like an unrealizable notion. As an instructor, I had always been a bit of a control freak in my classes, with well-defined assignments, clearly set (and non-negotiable) due dates, a firm schedule of topics and policies to cover every possible behavior a student could bring to the classroom that might cause a wrinkle on my forehead (e.g., tardies, texting, chit chat, late work, plagiarism, etc.). And yet, here I was – intrigued by letting it all go and giving the students power (gasp!).

So, how does it all shake out? Well, only time will tell but it starts like this …

The course in question is a course entitled ‘Teaching in Higher Education’ and the existing course overview read: 

This course centers on the discussion and practice of fundamental teaching methods. The aim is to equip individuals with the foundational pedagogical knowledge and skills to effectively fulfill their teaching mission in an institution of higher education.

That overview didn’t completely win me over … “equip individuals with the foundational pedagogical knowledge and skills…” Isn’t that being a little presumptuous of me? What if they have foundational pedagogical knowledge and skillsin place? My teaching philosophy rang like a little alarm in my head and I knew I should come to class with an open mind, an incomplete syllabus and a student survey to find out what they already know and what they want to know. As I figured, the teaching experience and range of course expectations embodied by these students was vast! I now had a pulse on this class and a better sense of what they were bringing to the learning experience.Knowing that this course focuses on teaching in higher education (and it’s for graduate students), you can envision the potential ‘wiggle room’ I might have to initiate this pedagogical experiment. After all, the point of this course is to model effective teaching and if, in fact, Weimer is on to something then this might just be a great practice to share with future instructors and faculty of higher education. So, I started by adding a little addendum to the course overview which reads: This course focuses on approaches to instruction that privilege student experience and background knowledge. It also highlights active learning strategies, addresses the balance of power in the classroom and explores the function of content.

We are only into week two of the semester, so this story will emerge throughout the semester and you will see, along with me, how it all unfolds.

So far, we have negotiated the following points as a class: 1) we are a cohesive learning community; 2) we work together democratically to make decisions in this course, and; 3) we honor the knowledge, skills and experiences that each brings to the community.

On day one we discussed the culture of the classroom that we wish to be part of this semester. We worked out the policies for this course related to attendance, punctuality, technology in the classroom (e.g., phones (texting!), laptops (Facebook!)), technology for learning (To CANVAS or not to CANVAS? that was the question … and the answer was ‘Yes’), food/drink in the classroom (situational factor: it’s a night class…) and more.

During our second class, we embarked on a course design mapping activity that helped us to shape the overarching ‘Big Ideas’ and scrutinize the specific course objectives. We mapped those to assessment measures (assignments) that I proposed – and surprisingly only one assignment was vetoed. We agreed upon the value of the other assignments for this course (e.g., teaching philosophy statement, syllabus construction, peer teaching observation, etc.). Finally, we began to brainstorm the learning plan for the course to generate discussion about how we will tackle course content (i.e., Will I lead the discussion of the readings each week or will they or … will we not even talk about them? What types of activities will best support them as they move toward providing evidence of understanding through the larger assessment assignments?).

This is uncharted territory for me and for them; yet, I think this class will rank “top five all-time best” classes I’ve ever taught … or maybe I just like that phrase from the movie High Fidelity starring John Cusack. Either way, stay tuned as I venture onward alongside the others in our learning community (aka: course).

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

~Rai Farrelly


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