This contribution was written by Nia Turner, Bryn Mawr College 2005. Nia spent the summer as a Center for Science in Society student intern, helping with among other things the K-12 Summer Institute program. She also participated in a Emergence Working Group discussion on "emergent pedagogy" that contributed to further thinking about her own educational experiences and preferences.
"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge."
- Albert Einstein
One is never finished learning, nor finished learning how to learn. In fact, I have discovered that one is never finished learning how to teach either. This brief essay speaks to the relationship between teaching and learning, and explores some implications for how classroom practice could become more effective.
I had the opportunity to participate in a pedagogical discussion about the idea of emergence in a workshop on emergent pedagogy at the College's Center for Science in Society. Initially, I was apprehensive about joining this conversation. I imagined a room occupied by scholars from different academic disciplines sharing in a dialogue about a complicated concept that any ordinary student like myself could not fully comprehend or appreciate. However, the presumptions I had made were false. Emergence as I perceive it is like a puzzle or abstract painting. Like a puzzle emergence involves small pieces that as they are assembled create an entirely new image. The problem with using a puzzle as a complete metaphor for emergence is that there is some preconceived notion of what the puzzle will look like once completed. On the other hand an abstract artist in most cases does not have a preconceived visual perception of one's work. The work may be inspired by the emotions one experiences. Then those emotions are translated into color blotches and textures. The color blotches and different textures both independently and collectively hold a certain significance to the artist and influence the placement of future blotches. The beauty of this metaphor is that it shares similarities with the notion of emergence because it creates a new expression which is open to different interpretations.
The discourse about emergence allowed me to be an artist in the sense that it provided a framework that I could use to reflect upon my personal experiences with education and learning. In addition, this discussion about emergence was particularly useful because I could listen to the perspectives of professors, and compare their thoughts about education, learning and teaching with my own ideas. I realized as the conversation grew more intense that teachers encounter challenges with teaching, as do students when it comes to learning. I was not alone. It was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes. A light bulb went on in my mind. I realized professors are learners seeking to better understand how their students learn.
As the conversation progressed notions that lay dormant in my mind began to come alive. The struggle to learn, which I had encountered through my educational experience began to make sense. Kim Cassidy spoke poignantly about her teaching and learning styles which drew both affirmation and opposition from students because of its "traditional" nature. She expressed concern that despite her ability to deliver thorough and interesting lectures many of her students still did poorly on the exams. Her story inspired me to reflect on my own performance in courses, and I started to ask myself a sequence of questions. What classes had I taken at anytime throughout my educational experience that I sincerely believed inspired me to think in imaginative ways that could be applied in other contexts? What was it about these courses that facilitated my learning?
Almost immediately I thought back to Mr. Pomeroy's A P English class in high school. He was an "innovative" teacher in the sense that he placed less of an emphasis on the content of the course, and more so on the ways in which we thought about the literature and could further develop our own ideas through writing. The intellectual challenge that I had been seeking was finally met. The thinker that lay dormant inside for years on end was allowed to come out. The fear of being wrong had escaped me because I realized that learning was not about being right, but rather about "getting it less wrong" .
Learning as introduced by Mr. Pomeroy is about the process of learning how to learn. I began to recognize that the zeal I had once as a child had been lost in my quest for above average grades, high grade point averages, and standardized test scores. My focus as a student had shifted from learning out of pure interest to learning for a superficial purpose. Looking back it was Mr. Pomeroy's method of teaching that I believed made me prepared for a Bryn Mawr College education. Learning how to think independently seemed to hold more personal significance than knowing that I had read such literary works as Invisible Man, Waiting for Godot, and The Will to Believe.
When I arrived on campus I discovered that some of the courses created a space for me to excel as a creative thinker, by allowing me to get in touch with my true learning sense. However, much like hotels, other courses had no vacancies, and by this I mean a space for me to think about concepts in the way I was most comfortable thinking about them. I realized that I was caught between a rock and a hard place, as my mother would say. I was forced to deny my natural learning style for one that seemed artificial to me, but the only acceptable way for some of my professors.
Approximately six weeks into the first semester of my sophomore year at Bryn Mawr College I began to loose my zeal for learning once again, and when that happened I began to seek a satisfactory explanation. I toyed with the ideas that maybe I had selected the wrong classes or that possibly I was burnt out by the personal stresses of life. They all seemed to be strong possibilities, but I remained skeptical. Over winter break, as any student that is serious about their education will tend to do, I honestly reevaluated my performance in the courses I had taken over the past semester. How hard had I worked in these classes? Did I dedicate a sufficient amount of time to studying? Did I complete most of the reading and assignments? However, these questions did not answer the inquires that mattered the most to me. Why had I disengaged from learning? Why did I develop a level of frustration with learning? Why did I loose my passion for learning?
I then came to the realization that there are three classifications for courses offered by Bryn Mawr including the following; lecture oriented, lecture and discussion based, and discussion driven. I realized that the course I had been most engaged in was discussion driven. The course had an average of thirty students, which is fairly large for Bryn Mawr, but the professor spent a considerable amount of time trying to create a comfortable atmosphere that would foster rich conversations. The course readings were diverse in nature ranging from poetry to fiction, but explored the questions at hand from different perspectives. Can sexual experience be put into language, and if so why is it necessary to put sex into language? Visitors from different walks of life enriched discussion by sharing their experiences with non-profit organizations and qualitative research. The class also has a mandatory praxis component, which provided students with the opportunity to conduct field research and learn outside the confines of a stuffy classroom. I received a great deal from this class because I was an active agent as opposed to a passive recipient in the learning process. I played an essential role in this class.
The contrast was to a course that was team taught by a historian and a political scientist, which one would imagine should open up the door for different perspectives on African history, culture, and politics. However, the majority of readings consisted of linguistics and historical information which would require prior knowledge in order to get the most out of the text. Furthermore, we were required to memorize the countries and capitals of Africa in order to pass the class. In these and other ways, the course made me feel like a receiver rather than a participant.
It dawned on me as I was sitting in the seminar room, with the professors engaging in a conversation about emergence and education, that the issue I struggled with was not my own inadequacies as a student. It was instead my lack of willingness to acknowledge my personal learning style when it was contrary to a professor's teaching and learning philosophies. I have arrived at the realization that if teachers could continue learning how to teach, I could continue learning how to learn. I began to accept the responsibility as a student to incorporate my own learning style into my educational experience, making of courses what I want as a student. Irrespective of what the teacher thinks he or she is doing, I need to make it make sense in my own terms.