I’ve been teaching for over a decade, and whereas most of these years I made myself as important as possible in the learning process, over the last few years I’ve been working on minimizing the notability of my presence in the room.
I say this as a faculty member of a few different places where what we called “student-centered teaching” was the expected norm, especially for young and with-it adjunct instructors, and recognizing the fact that I believed – say, six years ago – that my teaching was student-centered. I assigned discussion topics, had students interpret texts, asked the students to explain to one another what they’d learned, and gave them choices between texts they could work from for final papers.
Boy howdy, did I have a lot to learn in terms of getting out of students’ way. I still do, of course. I have been feeling for the last year or so as though I finally understand some part of what it means to get myself off center-stage and to make my teaching more about both what students can do and what students want to do.
First came an attitude shift. For a long time, bred and raised in academia, I was of the mind that if I explain something in a way that is effective for many students in the room, and you are a student who doesn’t understand, then the impetus is on you to follow up, to try different avenues, and to do what it takes to improve your understanding. I was always happy to help, and I wasn’t unapproachable, but I was also confused. I needed to see my students more like a marketer sees a brand (I think I’ve heard Michael Matera say something like this): if some students are not engaged, then I should try to offer that segment of the market something they want. Not everyone is going to love Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as I always have, but they might love intersections between philosophy and film, philosophy and war, or theories of aesthetic beauty.
Similarly, in the Middle School classroom, not every student is going to fall in love with the story of the Grachii brothers or the political angle of the birth of various religions, but they might want to build the same skills (challenging perspectives in a primary source, creating or reading timelines, building a table/chart for qualitative data, etc.) by answering an essential question about why some cars sell well in America while others don’t sell as well – or asking whatever happened to the DeLorean, anyway? They might build the same skills in writing a blog post or drafting a script for a podcast recording that they’d build in writing a two-page research memo. (It all depends on the framing, in most cases.)
Finding a way to give students the option of how to show what they know and even what content they want to know, is a recently found goal for me. I want to help them find new content, of course – but sometimes, the content just doesn’t matter. Most kids will forget who Marcus Crassus is at the end of the unit, even if I tell them how he reportedly died (George R.R. Martin definitely read his history). And I can tell a good story. But if they’re really engaged – if they care about the material – they’ll want to show me what they know and have learned. It’s my job to help them with the skills they need to learn more and to communicate what they know. This is how we encourage our students to be lifelong learners.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting more about student choice (as I will with gamification). I’ll try providing some practical suggestions that you can try for yourself. I’d also love to hear from you on this topic!