(Em)Power in the Clasroom Series (Part 3)

In this series, (Em)Power in the Classroom, we have so far considered what it might look like to share the power with students in the design of courses. In Part 1, I discussed how we worked together as a class – operating more as a learning community – to develop our class culture, our policies, our assignments, etc. I relinquished quite a bit of control in this process rather than adhering to a well-structured syllabus ‘dictating’ how the course will unfold. In Part 2, I presented our process for developing a grading system in the course – the result being a fairly fluid system that focuses more on successfully completing assignments to satisfy various criteria as measured by a simple qualitative likert scale, rather than striving for numbers and percentages equated with letter grades and based on unclear standards.

As we move forward, we are working with a syllabus that was co-created by all learners in the course, including me. Now, how do we explore the content of the course? Notice, I refrain from saying: How do we “cover” the content? Have you ever though about the use of “cover” in relation to course content? MaryEllen Weimer (2002) says it best in her chapter about the Function of Content:

Our strong content orientation is reflected in the metaphor used to describe the action we take with respect to content: we “cover” it. But what exactly does that metaphor mean? We “cover” content – like leaves cover the forest floor? Like a bedspread covers the bed? Is that the relationship that ought to exist between the teacher and content when the goal is learning?” (p. 46)

Many of us probably do think about ‘covering’ content – in the sense that we know what we want the students to explore during our courses and we strive to ‘get through it all’ within the semester. But when we view the content as something that we have to ‘cover’ or ‘get through’, we might incidentally blow right by the learning. What if we consider ‘using’ the content, ‘exploring’ the content, ‘uncovering’ the content? This is at the heart of learner-centered instruction – engaging students in exploring the content.

The teacher’s role in this process is another point for consideration by many teacher educators, teachers and instructional designers. What is our role when we are trying to engage the students? To what extent are we involved in the learning process? Weimer uses several metaphors to characterize the role of the teacher in a learner-centered environment – coach, midwife, gardener, etc. She promotes stepping out of the spotlight and letting the students lead the learning. Another metaphor from my teacher education courses is that denoting an architect. The latter is the metaphor of my choosing for a reason that was made clear to me in class this past week when we had a little breakdown.

First, let me frame my approach for content exploration in this course. As this is a course on teaching in higher education, I do try to model the strategies and techniques that I wish my students to embrace and implement in their teaching careers in the future (although I’m not sure my approach and underlying goals are always transparent). In any case, I share the ‘load’ when uncovering content. For example, the students have been taking chunks of the readings from week to week. They take turns leading the class through the content using approaches that promote student engagement. From time to time, a student will present the content in a teacher-centered fashion with limited opportunity for student engagement. In these cases, we talk about alternatives to exploring the content. For the most part however, they have been rather creative as student-teachers – incorporating Think-Pair-Share activities, jigsaw activities, brainstorming sessions and other approaches that promote active learning.

This past week, the topic was the Role of the Teacher. A student took a creative approach, presenting the content in an entertaining fashion, putting a spin on the notion of teacher in the ‘spotlight’ by literally holding a flashlight above his head while talking about himself and his evolution as a coach and instructor. He used humor and he was blatantly presenting from a place of ego and teacher-centeredness. He was essentially modeling what not to do while having us talk about general principles about the role of the teacher.

The breakdown I mention above, which reinforces my affinity for the architect metaphor, came during this student’s follow-up activity. For him, it was an experiment to see if Weimer’s ‘all hands off’ suggestion is actually realistic. He is skeptical about diminishing the role of the teacher entirely (as he should be) and he wanted to test it out. He gave us very rough instructions for the activity, which required that we get into groups and do the following: 1) reflect on our past, present and future ‘teacher selves’ (i.e., how we view ourselves as teachers in the past, present and how we hope to be as teachers in the future); 2) as a group decide what strategy we would use to share this information; 3) then execute the strategy.

If you’re confused by those instructions, you’re not alone. The entire class was confused. I actually knew what he was getting at, so I wanted to pipe up and provide more scaffolding – but I suppressed my inner charge-taker’s voice. (I was in a group and participating as a student, as I do for all of their presentations.) As I observed the activity unfold, I noticed that no one knew what to do, no one was suggesting that we come together as a group and decide on our strategy and the student-teacher was staying very uninvolved – intentionally. Some groups started planning how they would present as a small group, so they were developing their presentations – just not with the whole class.

Finally, our student-teacher brought us back together to ask what we were going to do as a group to reveal our past, present and future teacher selves. A few students spoke up: “We don’t really know what you want us to do.” Others agreed. Some shared their ideas of an execution strategy that involved role-playing their three teacher selves. The student-teacher challenged them: “But you were supposed to plan that with the whole group.”

So, where does the architect come in? This student reinforced for me the effectiveness of the teacher-as-architect metaphor. In this sense, the teacher is the person who carefully designs the lesson, who provides the scaffolding for the activities so that when the learners explore the content (the raw building material) it will be done so in a way that is planned and structured, yet open to a safe level of creative manipulation.

This student-learner presented an activity that was entirely learner-centered (great!) and required the students to come together (awesome!) and not only take part in an activity but decide what the product of the activity would ultimately be (fabulous!). BUT – the breakdown came in this student-teacher’s lack of scaffolding and design for the activity. There was no careful thought given to the delivery of instructions for the activity nor any check of student comprehension prior to setting us free to start the process. Furthermore, there was no on-going ‘consultation from the architect’ during the ‘building’ process. He set us free to figure things out without a blueprint.

As a result, this student-teacher concluded that limiting the role of the teacher and putting the responsibility for learning solely in the hands of the students is not realistic. Clearly, the level of ‘limits’ placed on the teacher and the level of ‘responsibility’ given to the students will vary depending on those key significant features that I touched on in Part 2 of this series. In other words, class size, student level, discipline and content will impact the extent to which the teacher can step out. But more importantly, any level of sharing power in a classroom requires careful planning and consideration prior to stepping foot in the classroom. Teachers have to craft the activities thoughtfully and ensure that instructions are clearly articulated and delivered. Teachers have to do comprehension checks prior to setting students free to work together. And perhaps most importantly, teachers have to monitor during the learning process and ensure that students are engaged and on task.

As I find myself saying time and again in my promotion of active learning in the classroom, it is much easier to slap together a PowerPoint presentation and ‘cover’ the content. Promoting true learner engagement requires additional preparation outside of class, but if lessons are crafted carefully and implemented thoughtfully, the benefits of sharing the responsibility for teaching and learning during class far outweigh the time required to make it happen!

What I learned this week about sharing the power: I should ask students to submit a lesson plan describing how their session will unfold. Currently, I only have them send me the PowerPoint slides that they will use. Ensuring that they effectively use the content and engage the students will mitigate any possible frustration from classmates who could potentially view their ‘lesson’ or content delivery as a waste of class time (which was the case for one student during the above-mentioned student-teacher’s lesson).

Ah, teaching – ever the learning process for those of us who choose to reflect and evolve!

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