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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

(Formerly) Traditional Students in the Revolutionary System

Sky Stegall

- An Introduction to the Questions

Every revolutionary encounters resistance - it is part of what makes us revolutionaries. When one engages in a nontraditional pedagogy, especially in an extra-classroom setting, one becomes a revoluntionary kind of teacher and learner. The use of a new and different system in a learning environment can provoke deeper understanding, more interest in material, and a more substantial involvement on the students' part. Unfortunately, it may also provoke fear, distrust, and resistance. In the case of the extra-classroom teacher the resistance can come from every direction, including the students. This may prove to be the biggest obstacle in creating and sustaining emergent, progressive, creative and yes, revolutionary learning environments. How does one convince a group of students who have been raised with and indoctrinated in a traditionally structured education system that an emergent or just an unusual system is legitimate? How do we, as extra-classroom teachers especially, redefine education to include and embrace situations which are far from the comfortable, traditional, teacher-oriented structures students may be used to?
As with any educational idea, the students must buy into the concept for it to work; however in the case of an emergent system this issue is magnified. Since the system requires more engagement and work form the students than the traditional pour-knowledge-into-the-vessel approach, the students must be engaged in making the new system work. They have to become part of the revolution, as it were. But how do we actually do that? How do we help empower and literally encourage our students to take the bold steps away from the comfortable pedagogy of “‘Horace’s Compromise’ - don’t ask too much of me and I won’t hassle you!” (Connolly, 4) and towards our goals?

- A Few Examples

When Paul Grobstein set up his introductory biology class to follow an emergent and unusual pedagogical pattern, he expected a rebellion, or some kind of big reaction to the revolutionary steps he’d taken in changing his course. He didn’t get that kind of reaction - in fact the class got along rather well, considering how different it was from the traditional intro science courses his students had no doubt taken in high school. He explains it thus: “Students, as always, are quite wiling to follow the lead of teachers, so long as the teachers send clear and nonconflicting messages about what the educational experience is about” (Grobstein, 3).

I didn’t really understand what he meant until I spoke with Victor Donnay of our math department. He talked about making math classrooms into nontraditional learning environments and how hard that had been. He said specifically that in his case, an ounce of prevention had been worth more than a pound of cure, and that students did fine in an unusual classroom so long as they knew from the outset what they were doing and, perhaps more importantly, why they were doing it that way. Students need to know and understand the revolution they are being invited to take part in, and it surely helps to explain where these strange ideas have come from, and what they mean. Professor Donnay mentioned telling his students that “studies have shown” or that “research indicates” that the type of system he was using was more effective for learning, comprehension, and long-term retention of material. As long as the students understand the motivation behind what may seem like strange decisions, they are much more likely to engage themselves.

- A Case Study

In my placement, in which the students are all college or post-college level students, we are faced with the very real challenge of legitimizing a system which frequently seems strange and perhaps pointless to the learners. Our lab is not graded, although lab notebooks are read and commented upon, and there is no take-home work in the form of a prelab or postlab assignment. The students themselves are constantly encouraged to design or redesign the experiments they are doing - one reason we have no formal grading or take-home work is that we are trying to get students to create their own lab, to make it a living, emergent experience. This can be frightening - a student at this level is generally unused to seeing unfamiliar apparatus and equiptment and figuring out how to explore his or her creativity with it. It is a revoluntionary idea, it seems, to ask a student to think for his or herself in an intro lab. Many of the traditional aspects of lab have been thrown out the window, so to speak, and the students were informed of this on the first day. While few of them expressed particular concern at that time, many students have come to me and to the instructor since then with criticisms of the structure and lack of grading policy in the lab. Many of our students are post-baccalaureates attempting to enter medical school, and several of them have expressed the opinion that three hours a week spent in a lab that does not technically affect their grade is a misuse of their time. Some students have also stated they feel they are not learning in lab, because of the lack of structure and follow-up assignments.

Once I noticed that this was a recurring problem, I began questioning students about their thoughts and feelings towards the lab, and what they thought could be done better. I observed that generally the students who complained that the lab was not graded were the same students who got extremely anxious around exams in all their classes, and who often placed greater emphasis on securing good grades and a “good” medical school placement than on understanding and being able to use and remember the conceptual material. On the other hand, I also questioned students who had never seemed worried that the lab was not graded, and their responses were overwhelmingly positive about it; they said it took off the pressure of performance and allowed them to explore wherever their curiosity led. These students also rarely seemed to worry about their classes - and indeed, one of them has already been accepted to the medical program of his choice.

What I found to be important was to understand the attitude of the students, individually and as a group. My students respond to our system better when they have a more relaxed view of their work in the college, and when they are more confident about their classroom grades. When I realized that, I offered to tutor some of the more stressed-out students. On the occasions when they have taken me up on this offer, I have had the opportunity to get to know them, to help them with their work, to ask them about their classes and labs, and to literally encourage them in the discipline - a student who feels more prepared for the test is going to look more kindly and with more enthusiasm at the laboratory system because he or she is less focused on the grade. I also try to take every opportunity in lab to discuss what aspects of the experiment relate to the class work, and especially how understanding the concepts will be helpful to them in their future classes and careers. Engaging a student in a discussion about digital logic has, on several occasions, led to conversation about how technological systems parallel the design of the human body, and the color perception lab often ends up with a debate about the human eye and brain, and why they work the way they do. Finding what makes my students sit up and get interested is a huge part of my job as a facilitator, and a joy in itself as well.

- A Few Good Ideas

While there is no way to accurately predict how a group of students will react to a new, unusual, emergent, revolutionary pedagogy, there are some reliable ways to legitimize the system in the minds of your students. Especially important in required extra-classroom settings like a lab or T.A. session, legitimacy can mean the difference between struggling through a painful year of complaints and students who refuse to try to learn, and a year of hard work through the brilliant journey of understanding. This is not easy, by any means - no revolution ever is. But it is also not as hard as it may sound, because there are well-tried methods to smoothing the pathway:

• Explain, without condescension, what you are doing differently, and why. Your students probably more invested in their education than you are, and will often respond well to being involved in the pedagogical process. The trick is to do it as early as possible; not to let your students’ expectations outgrow your ability to change them.

* Make sure your students understand particularly that you are trying to create a good environment for them, and that you are willing to be flexible and make compromises to ease the transition from traditional to revolutionary. You needn't hold their hands, so to speak, but do make the change as smooth as possible. Also check on yourself, and be careful not to judge your students, especially in the early stages. A student who seems confused and unhappy may end up being your system's biggest fan in the end; you must remember to start gently.

• Get to know your students’ needs and motivations. Try not to assume you know what a student will be interested in based on his or her major or apparent future plans - some of the best lab experiences I have had with premed students did not involved medicine at all. Talk to your students informally, and get to know them as people and as learners.

* Remember relevance - once you know your students, look for connections between material (especially difficult material) that you study and the daily or professional lives of your students. Not only is relevant information more interesting, it is often easier to remember.

• Offer to accommodate some of their expectations and/or needs. I help my students with their homework and answer questions that relate to quizzes and class work as much as to lab. They respect me more for it, because I clearly care about their priorities in learning, not just mine in teaching.

Is it a lot of work to engage students in a revolutionary system? Definitely. Is it worthwhile? I say, even more definitely. Research has shown that some pedagogies encourage more and deeper learning, and while taking bold steps away from less helpful, traditional systems is difficult and scary, the end result is exceptionally worthwhile.

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