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Ch-ch-ch-changes!

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I hardly recognize myself. That’s expected when you’ve reached your 50s. Inside I feel like my 20-something self, but when I glance in the mirror I see someone much older. Sigh. At least the laugh lines and crows feet have come with some wisdom and perspective.

I recently told a colleague how I was planning to finish the semester in microeconomics. Her response, “soon you will be as I was, hardly recognizing the teacher I’d become.” That got me thinking about the ways I’ve changed as a teacher. That evolution is more dramatic than the ways my reflection has altered with time.

Insecure …to… Confident

Let’s be honest. New teachers are nervous. We might be content experts, but unless you are in education, the amount of pedagogical training provided in grad school typically ranges from little to none. We end up teaching as we were taught. I didn’t read much about pedagogy until I was tenured. I had the good fortune of working with an excellent mentor. I listened to experienced teachers. But generally, I was very nervous, insecure, and ignorant about teaching and learning in my early career.

I’m more confident now, but that’s only partly because of time and experience. A big part of that confidence stems from being more informed about my teaching. I read books about learning, cognition, teaching, technology and related issues regularly. I read several pedagogical journals. I have been conducting pedagogical scholarship for several years. I reflect on my teaching practice (this blog is invaluable to me in that regard). I present at teaching and learning conferences and lead faculty development workshops. Time, by itself, doesn’t make us better teachers. Learning, testing, experimentation and reflection are responsible for growing as a teacher and thereby increasing my confidence.

Pessimistic …to… Optimistic

Perhaps it’s my background as an auditor. Maybe it’s due to my upbringing or genes. Whatever the cause, my early teaching years reflected this view: If you don’t grade it, students won’t do it. It’s terrible to admit, but that suggests the teacher thinks many students are lazy and unmotivated. That attitude can manifest in a number of teacher behaviors that hurt student learning and/or prove self-fulfilling. When we expect the worst of students, they often deliver.

Over time, I looked at my courses from the student perspective. I discovered I wouldn’t want to be one of my students! I changed the tone of my syllabus. “Students will…” statements were replaced with “We will…” Instead of assuming the worst in students and planning for that in the syllabus, I tested the alternative position. My policies now assume the best. The result is that the worst-case scenarios (missed exams, cheating, etc) are outliers, not the norm. The more positive and optimistic I’ve become about my students and their learning, the more fun and productive my classes have become for me and my students.

Controlling …to… Facilitating

Never let them see you sweat. That’s an apt mantra for the insecure teacher. If you’re unsure of yourself, you certainly don’t want students to suspect. Often, the best defense is a good offense. For many teachers that means exerting complete control. It starts with a syllabus that spells out what will happen every minute of every class. Class sessions become scripted Powerpoint lectures. Sometimes students are given a script with blanks to fill in during lecture. Complete control means students have no say in policy, content, or assessment. Although I have never used slides to lecture or scripts for note taking, my early teaching behaviors and demeanor made it very clear, the class was MY show.

How and why did that change? I believe it started when I incorporated active learning strategies in the classroom. It’s not possible to script or control how things will proceed when students are solving problems in class. As I relinquished control student interest and engagement grew. It was scary at first. Eventually I saw that loosening control doesn’t mean bedlam will occur.

That brings me to the present. I have yielded even more control of my microeconomics course. What students will investigate during the last two weeks of the course and the format of their final assessment is a choice (within ranges). I’ll be teaching some content during a portion of each class. The remainder of each period will be dedicated to group and individual work on topics they identified in the Big Questions assignment (See https://1313lola.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/big-questions/ ).

I never had a professor/teacher let the students make the syllabus/lessons and I think this is why I am doing so well in the class. It’s a great way of teaching.

When I started teaching, sharing control like this was beyond my imagination. I wish I knew then what I know now. I scarcely recognize myself.

Ceding Control: Risk & Reward

It’s tough to assess students early and often in a night class. If you teach new material before the test, no one is focused on it. They’re worried about the exam. If you test first, there’s a risk students will leave when they finish. To prepare for the first exam, we identified test topics and assigned weights. I proposed a timeline for the exam night. I explained my thinking and asked for suggestions. They made recommendations and I revised. Then I took pictures and posted them in the LMS. This was our plan.

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To be honest, I was pleased with the exam content plan, and concerned about the evening’s agenda. Twenty minutes of break seemed way too long after an exam. Students wanted a long enough break to pick up takeout! My gut told me students would finish the test and go home. But this was our plan. Teachers routinely ask or expect students to trust us. It was my turn to trust them.

Exam day was long and busy. At 6pm we followed our plan. After the 30-minute review, students began the 60-minute test. Around 7:40 I took the exams to my office. I collected my thoughts, gathered my energy for the lesson, and wondered how many students would be there.

At 7:50 I reentered the classroom. It was filled with students! I was surprised and thrilled. What a credit to their motivation and maturity! We debriefed a bit about the test. As of 8pm, 50 of the 60 students stayed or returned for the lesson.

I started by complimenting them. I decided to reward each with an engagement ticket (1-point bonus to be used at their discretion). Students passed around a sign in sheet they labeled “Extra credit because we stayed :-).” I pledged to make the lesson worthy of their decision to stay. After a mini-lecture we problem-solved and they completed one practice problem. We called it a night at 8:40.

I was still beaming when I got home an hour later. Why did they stay? I know it wasn’t the topic. Closing entries are about as dry as it gets in accounting. Points didn’t motivate since attendance isn’t graded. My college-age kids said it’s a tribute to my teaching. If that’s true, what’s the takeaway for teachers?

Mano Singham has greatly influenced my thinking on the syllabus and classroom management. In “Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom” he writes:

“…learning is an inherently voluntary 
act that you can no more force than you can force someone to love you. Authoritarianism and fostering a love of learning just do not go together” p.55.

“The classroom works best when students and teachers perceive it as a place where there is a continuing conversation among interested people, similar to what one might have with friends. A sense of community is not created by rules and laws but by a sense of mutual respect and tolerance” p.57.

In “Death to the Syllabus” he says,

“The implicit message of the modern course syllabus is that the student will not do anything unless bribed by grades or forced by threats” p.52.

“There is a vast research literature on the topic of motivation to learn, and one finding screams out loud and clear: controlling environments have been shown consistently to reduce people’s interest in whatever they are doing, even when they are doing things that would be highly motivating in other contexts” pp.54-55.

“It is assumed that we have to teach in an authoritarian manner because of the way students are. However, all the literature on student motivation has convinced me that the opposite is likely true: students act the way they do because we treat them the way we do” p.55.

I don’t think this group is an outlier of highly motivated students. Nor do I believe my lectures and lessons are especially fun. That kind of thinking reduces teaching to entertaining. It also sells students short.

The literature and this experience suggest reduced teacher control and shared decision-making changes the dynamic in the classroom.

We made a plan.

We lived up to it.

Ceding control is straightforward, but not easy. I feared students wouldn’t follow through. But I took a chance and trusted their judgment. A small risk paid off big time. What are your experiences with shared decision-making? How might you cede some control to students?

References:

Singham, M. 2005. Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom. Change, May/June: 51-57.

Singham, M. 2007. Death to the Syllabus. Liberal Education, Fall: 52-56.