Monday, November 23, 2015

Creating a Student-Centered Learning Environment

 Though the institutions of education are historically problematic and often oppressive, students who have experienced them as “outsiders” (including many punks) understand the importance of learning from teachers who have developed radical notions of what education is and how it works. The Teaching Resistance column is designed to provide a platform for radical, subversive teachers/educators to share their ideas and draw attention to important issues around education.

The June 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) is about what teachers can do to help create a student-centered classroom – an educational environment which expressly validates students' own experiences+knowledge, encourages critical analysis, and helps them teach each other rather than simply telling them what to think. A setting where the teacher acts more as a mentor and coach rather than an endlessly lecturing “fountain of knowledge”. This column's author is Laura A. Zink, who has been teaching English for nine years. Currently, she teaches at a community college in the East Bay and writes short fiction. Laura can be reached directly at fightwriterzink [at]

In a Manner Unbecoming of “The Man”

Many semesters ago, I was teaching a unit on education in one of my English composition classes. In the essay we were discussing, the author argued that a student’s socio-economic class, the growing demand by employers for graduate degrees, and the current shifts in federal financial aid were recreating and widening the educational and economic gap between the haves and the have-nots.
I think some of the author’s statistics hit a little too close to home for the students. As we started to discuss the institutions and forces contributing to some of these disparities, the room got quiet. The students bowed their heads, gazing at their textbooks with blank and distant stares. The only sound in the classroom came from the back. A young man rapped his thumbs against the edges of his desk like a drum. Barely peeking up from under his baseball cap, he said:
So The Man is keeping us down.”
I stood there gripping my textbook, the cockles of my nerdy little subversive heart heating to a boil. I asked him to clarify what he meant by “The Man.” This was an English class, right? So define your terms. Who is The Man exactly? And while I am trying to reframe his opinion, I am thinking to myself - this is going to be good. Boo big business, right? Boo corrupt politicians. C’mon, dude! Say it!
The Man is the government,” he said. “Cops and corporations. Schools, too.” He lifted his head and paused. Looking at me straight on, he said: “And you. Like, you’re The Man.”
Wrong answer, I thought. My mind scrambled for a way to demonstrate the error in his thinking. The Man is more of an abstract idea than a person, so I cannot be The Man. I don’t fit the profile. I am not even a man, for starters. I am not on the speed dial of any government officials or CEOs or lobbyists who are seeking my ideas about managing the country or any business organization. I am a vulnerable, part-time, at-will employee of the community college system, my position subject to the varying needs of the college on a semester-to-semester basis. I am not rich. If I counted the number of hours I work against my salary, I am a low-wage worker at best. I am not The Man! I am not, not, not The Man!
Overwhelmed with emotions and opinions, I looked down at my textbook, searching as if I would find some kind of answer in there. I had to bat away this ridiculous idea. I just needed to make sure that the way I did it wasn’t too obvious.
“Well,” I said. “Let’s go back to the text. Who does the author view as The Man?”
It was a loaded question. That young man knew it. They all knew it. Nowhere in the essay did the author blame instructors for the disenfranchisement of students. For the rest of the class, the students repeated the ideas from the textbook and expressed none of their own. And after class, I tried to laugh off that student’s opinion as some kind of passive-aggressive fiddle faddle.
I ain’t The Man. Pssht. Whatever, dude.

The young man did have a point though. That day, my actions supported my authority at the expense of his. When he had an opinion that I didn’t like, I viewed it as an attack and tried to discredit it. My chosen tactic was to redirect the conversation away from his opinion, and then, worse still, replace his idea in favor of the “authoritative” ones in our textbook. Perhaps worst of all, I did all of this because I wanted to push my opinion on my students. It didn’t matter that the ideas I was aiming for were “revolutionary” or “subversive.” I wanted them to see things MY way. In a lot of ways, I was acting like The Man.
As much as I could try to rationalize that I was the exception - because of my point of view, or my politics, or my identity, or whatever excuse I could conjure to privilege my ideas at the expense of theirs - the students do feel the imbalance of power in the classroom. For many of them, this kind of power dynamic is reflected in almost every other area of their lives – boss-worker, police-civilian, court-accused. I am not suggesting that the instructor-student dynamic is identical to these others. What I am saying is that to many students, the instructor of a class is yet another authority, and again, they are not. While the instructor doesn’t have the power to fire them or arrest them or lock them up, they do have a certain power - the power to tell them what to think. Left unchecked, an instructor could be the thought police. The Man of the mind, so-to-speak.
Granted, as far as the course content is concerned, the instructor is the expert in the class. They damn well better be. They have spent years working to gain mastery over the content, concepts, and nuances of their discipline. Because of this, it is their job is to teach those specific skills. In almost everything outside of this, the students have more to contribute than the instructor does. The instructor is one person with one point of view, and in my classes, there are anywhere from thirty to forty students, each with an individual point of view. The students are the critical mass. My opinions do not help students voice their own ideas, nor discover how they came to believe what they do, nor understand the implications of their thinking and beliefs. In a classroom context, my opinions on a topic can only suppress theirs. And as the class gatekeeper, as soon as I voice my opinion, it gets interpreted as part of the course content and transforms into gospel truth.
Once I really considered what this student had said, I realized that I needed to make some major changes. As much as I was assigning group work and discussing texts and asking them questions, my class was functionally teacher-centered. I needed to adopt methods that emphasized and encouraged student autonomy, and hopefully, inspired students to question authority outside of the classroom. Here are some of the things I have done to restructure my classes into a student-centered environment:
  • Recognize the similarities – While there are times when we alternate responsibilities and workload, we are all working to make the class a success. Every rule, every activity, and every assignment reflects a two-way exchange. For example, deadlines apply to me in the same way that deadlines apply to students – no late work from students and a quick turn-around from me. These mutual responsibilities can be outlined in the syllabus. They are policies for the entire community, instructor and student alike.
  • Be transparent – I make sure to tell the students explicitly what I am trying to accomplish with each activity. I am not going to waste their time staging a performance designed to trick them into thinking I am something that I am not. I am not the Wizard of Oz. Instead, I try to demystify the classroom process, and in doing so, demonstrate to the students their critical role in the learning process and, in turn, the success of the class.
  • Admit mistakes – I am not all knowing and all-powerful. Sometimes, I do not know the answer to a particular question. Sometimes, I make a mistake. A less honest thing to do in a circumstance like this is try to hide it, or worse, throw it back at the class and disguise my own learning opportunity as a learning opportunity for them. Instead, I admit it, and I share what I intend to do about it. This way, I am being open about my limitations and honest about my mistakes, just as I expect them to be open and honest about theirs.
  • Focusing on real questions – I don’t play that “guess what’s in my head” game anymore. The students need to question things to figure out what they think, not what I think.
  • Have students take over the class - After they get the swing of things, I give them the reigns. At the end of a unit or as a culminating activity, I have students develop curriculum in class and use that curriculum as the basis for the next class. I have students run discussions, too. The best learning experiences tend to happen when students have a genuine voice and a genuine stake in both the product and the process of their learning.

Of course, these practices are not one-size-fits-all methods for refocusing all classes in all circumstances into student-centered ones. I can only speak to my experiences. What I want to emphasize here is the importance of avoiding a hierarchical structure that privileges instructor ideas over those of the students. The classroom is not a pulpit. It is not a political convention. When faced with a room full of people with unique life experiences and points of view, the most revolutionary thing I can do is to get off the soapbox, shut the hell up, and listen. I feel more confident about my classes when I am working towards developing a critical mass of independent thinkers, not an army of clones. --Laura A. Zink

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