Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: The Challenges of Letting Go of Control

Tomorrow is my first day of crowdsourcing my course, or, perhaps more accurately, working with my students to create a peer-driven course. We had our first class(es) on Monday, where I introduced the concept and we went through the syllabus, such as it was. I assigned two posts from Cathy Davidson's HASTAC blog, as well as the Paulo Freire essay on the banking concept of education included in their reader, in an attempt to inspire and challenge them, to help them see things a little differently. 

First, the good news. One of my classes seemed really excited about the possibilities. I could see them smiling and nodding their heads and wheels starting to turn. One of the students (he took me for both of his English classes last year) has already emailed me about "contract grading" and if we could do something like that in the class (my response, after shrieks of joy, was to say that it was up to the class and if he thought it was something we should do, then make the argument). Tomorrow, I'm going to use a text messaging instant survey service to gage my students' attitudes and see where we stand on some general issues in the course. I am very excited about this. No one has seemed to have dropped my course (yet).

Now, the less good news. My other class showed little enthusiasm and looked more terrified than invigorated by the possibility of deciding the direction of the course. I feel unmoored by this experience; usually, I'd have my first two weeks of classes down cold and I could skate through the first few weeks on my charm and well-practiced lectures and exercises. Now, I'm completely without a rudder. And, apparently, relying on heavy-handed, cliched symbolism. I have a plan, but I don't want to have too much of a plan, in case I fall back on my well-trained habit of lecturing and steering the course where I think or would want it to go. 

And I, too, am terrified. There are few places in my life where I feel completely and totally comfortable; one of those places is the pool, another is in front of the classroom. When I stepped in front of a class for the first time to really teach, it didn't take long for the nerves to disappear and for me to feel like I was right where I was supposed to be, right where I wanted to be. In the same way I had always felt "right" in the pool, I felt "right" while teaching in front of the class. This is a rare feeling for me. I've always felt slightly awkward, slightly out of place. Even in academia, I don't quite fit (that's one of the things that Bad Female Academic has been about). But put me in front of a group of students and tell me to teach them...

Maybe it's because I was in a position of authority and (relative) control; so much of my life growing up felt outside of my control that it was nice to finally be somewhere where people respected me, listened to me, and (dare I say it) had to do what I said. Don't get me wrong, I never took that for granted or took advantage of my position of authority, and I work hard to make sure that I deserve my students' respect. But that power, the feeling of being in control, it's something that I am already worried about missing. 

I know this will make me a better teacher. But will that be as personally fulfilling to me? This is a selfish, selfish question to ask, but I think it's a question we need to ask ourselves as educators because this could be one of the reasons we are so resistant to radically changing how we teach. There is a sense of fulfillment and pride in seeing our students learn and succeed. But, if we're really honest with ourselves, there are other reasons why we teach, more personal, more selfish reasons. Those reasons often remain hidden, unexamined. 

I am giving up a large portion of the control in my class. I am re-learning how to assert my authority in ways that don't involve dictating what my students need to do and when. And it's really, really hard and really, really scary. 

I must be doing something right, then. 

7 comments:

  1. Keep it up. For the scared class help them along by guiding them in the building of potential. They just don't share the same realm of reality to see how they personally fit in the new way of learning. Plus it will make a great test to see which classes do what, and provide great content for follow ups.

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  2. Wow, I loved this post and can't wait to see how these two classes go. Class #2 needs to realize that you are giving them a prime opportunity to use college as experience--to craft examples and stories about what truly makes each student unique. What the students will do in the peer-driven class will provide reflections that they can use for interviews, resumes, etc. After all, in real work, we are constantly co-learning, co-teaching, and creating agreements and contracts collaboratively. Class #2 will hopefully realize this gift. Wonderful! Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof

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  3. One of my literature modules had a crowdsourcing element to it. The class was able to choose a text to study.

    Most of us agreed on an unexpected text in order to give a new angle to the course. The tutor was enthusiastic about our efforts, studying the text himself and helping us to incorporate it in the rest of the module.

    However, some students in the class weren't happy with the situation and considered the move far from academic. They didn't think students should make decisions like this. Some denied the validity of the text and others made it clear that they were unhappy to participate.

    My personal experience was only positive and it helped me think in ways I wouldn't have from a text within a more traditional canon.

    I told friends on other courses and they were pretty jealous.

    Any academic curveball is going to work for some and not for others. But that's the same with anything new. That 'comfort zone' has a lot of explaining to do!

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  4. You say you're giving up control of the class but I disagree.

    Anyone can grab the hands of pre-schoolers and walk them across the street. But It takes talent, planning and care to let go of their hands and get them safely across the street.

    Your students are going to end up at a place you want them to be. And you'll have lead them there so expertly, they'll think they were in control the whole time. Now that takes talent!

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  5. I admire your bravery, and I want to know how the two classes go. If I tried this experiment in one of my historical surveys of literature, I'd get few responses. Most of my students couldn't name what was written in previous centuries, so they wouldn't know what to suggest to study. Perhaps your frightened people need choices to vote on.

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  6. Really neat post! I too am trying a lot of new strategies in my classroom this year and find myself equally freaked by the loss of control. I think this is good, however. It will force us to focus on the students and learn about them deeply to figure out what makes them tick so that we can draw on that for later learning. In the end I think it will be much more meaningful and memorable - stick with it!!

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