(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 2)

Re-posted from my blog series for the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at the University of Utah.
“While meeting everyone’s needs sounds compassionate and student-centered, it is pedagogically unsound and psychologically demoralizing.” (Brookfield, 1995, p. 21).
Thank goodness!! From classes for undergraduate and graduate students to workshops for faculty, I have, from time to time, had the feeling that I didn’t meet everyone’s needs – as if it were possible; yet, I would still feel bad about it. That, I suppose, is in part  because my top strength (of 34 possible) as identified by a Strengths Finder test is Empathy! Oh boy. According to Brookfield (1995), being a critically reflective teacher is at the core of accepting that it’s just not possible to meet everyone’s needs – it is simply an assumption that we might carry around with us, but it is an assumption that we should shrug off – right along with our Atlas Complex.
Along with the long-held assumption that we should try to meet everyone’s needs in the classroom is the assumption that we should have power in the classroom. Only, I’m sure that most would never articulate that assumption in such a way. Why would a teacher ever say out loud “I want to have power over my students.” In fact, I would bet that most instructors who exude power over their students do so rather unknowingly. It might manifest in the design of a tightly wound syllabus riddled with policies, rules, grading criteria, explicitly outlined assignments, etc. It might appear in a delivery method for content that excludes the students from interacting with the material in a meaningful way (i.e., the traditional didactic lecture). It is likely subtle, but it’s almost sure to exist. Why? Because it is one of the most commonly held assumptions in education – Father Knows Best? No, try Teacher Knows Best. But does she really?
In my experiment with sharing the power in the classroom this semester, I have found myself breathing easier. I am relying on my students – rather my fellow learning community members – to share in the co-construction of meaning related to our topic, which in this case is conveniently: teaching in higher education. I feel a sense of ease knowing that their knowledge is complimenting my knowledge and together we are teasing out the best approaches to teaching in higher education. Of course, my teaching experience and knowledge base serve as a guide when contextualizing comments, creating concrete examples or posing relevant thought-provoking questions. However, there is no indication that ‘what I say goes’ – I hope! My goal is that they take what we discuss in this class and assume a critically reflective stance about their teaching in relation to our discussions. They will test their own assumptions in their respective classes and allow their teaching philosophies to evolve against the backdrop of their experiences.
So, let’s go back in time. In my last entry – I shared our experience with creating our classroom culture and exploring the assignments for this course. We agreed that the suggested assignments for the course were suitable to our overarching learning objectives for this class. As such, they will be required to write a teaching philosophy, complete a course design grid, an accompanying syllabus and one lesson plan for that course. This should all be relevant to them as they will each be teaching courses at the University in the coming semesters.In addition, they will each be observed while teaching a class in their department. The exciting thing about this assignment is that most of them are not currently teaching, so this means that they must secure a teaching opportunity and collaborate with the lead instructor of that class to both meet that instructor’s intended learning goals for that topic and also implement the lesson in such a way as to embrace the active learning approaches we discuss in our course. In addition to being observed by me, they will each observe one of their peers and a ‘Master Teacher‘ (e.g., a recognized ‘excellent’ teacher at the U), providing feedback and analyzing that instructor’s approach in relation to their individual teaching philosophies.
The ‘fun’ part for the discussion on assignments came in Day Three of this course when we addressed the grading policy. How do you evaluate graduate students in a course entitled Teaching in Higher Education, which is designed to prepare them to be instructors on campus? Well, in this case – I let them tell me what seemed fair. I gave them some options to choose from and left the window open (for me to jump out) for them to design additional options. What do you think they did with this freedom? this power? I’ll tell you what they didn’t do. They didn’t say, “Just give us all an A and call it good.” No. In fact, at least one voice asked for the option of having scores divvied on a scale from A+ to F so that distinctions in quality of work could be honored. Rather than hash out the details of the discussion, I’ll let you (with great trepidation and pride) read the final ‘Grading’ section of my syllabus – as constructed with the learners in this class.
We will use rubrics for product-oriented assignments (i.e., observed teaching experience, course design grid, syllabus, lesson plan and teaching philosophy). Credit for peer and master teacher observations will be given with evidence of reflection on the observed class (i.e., completed observation feedback form, reflection on observed teaching in relation to one’s own teaching philosophy and participation in class discussions).
Rubrics are not numerical, but have qualitative likert scales (i.e., completely, mostly, partially, not at all). Assignments will be graded as high pass, pass or fail. Assignments that receive a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ mark can be resubmitted to reach a higher standard (high pass or pass).
At the time of final grades, high pass is an A, pass is an A- and ‘fail’ will be negotiated in relation to the extent of the fail (i.e., reason for ‘fail’, number of ‘failed’ assignments, level of effort made to resubmit assignment, level of effort made to consult peers or instructor, and standard/quality of work in relation to peers).
I’m just as anxious as you to see how this works at the end of the semester! 
Now let me highlight one important point in our discussions around this approach to collaborative course design. The guiding consideration for sharing the power in the classroom is the set of situational factors that underscore your class (see p. 6 in this Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning by L. Dee Fink, PhD).  These situational factors help us make decisions about power sharing based on critical information related to who our students are, where we are teaching and what is expected of us as teachers. These situational factors include the values, expectations and assumptions of all involved. They ask us to consider big questions such as, “Can I let 150 Freshman decide how I grade them?” I think we all know the answer to that one. “Can the approach Rai is taking with her CTLE course work in my Physiology class?” Please, do let me know.
In my next entry, I’ll elaborate on how we roll out each lesson and share the responsibility for delivering and exploring course content. Please, submit your questions, comments, shock and awe. We’d also love to hear about your experiences, successes and failed attempts with approaches you’ve tried in the classroom.Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.~Rai Farrelly