Sunday, October 28, 2012

Teaching, Learning, and the Space of the Classroom

This week I have been thinking about the space of the classroom and what it means for me as an instructor as well as for my students.  My students have spent 13+ years traveling to a space that is generally populated with desks, fellow students, and some expert who usually stands at the front of the class (the infamous "sage on the stage").  They know that, when they are in this space, they will be expected to do that thing they call "learning"; and they expect that the instructor will teach them.  From their 13+ years of formal education, they have developed very specific expectations about what this teaching will look like and how they will experience it: that expert, probably standing near the front of the class (especially if it is a large class in a UT auditorium), will pontificate on some set topic.  S/he will likely have assigned the students some outside of class reading but few of them will have done it since, well, nobody else is doing it and they aren't going to be expected to participate because, well, the instructor is teaching.

The instructor might pause from time to time to take questions or even to ask a few questions.  The usual suspects near the front of the class will be paying attention, will have done the reading before class, and will know the answers.  The majority of students will slump in their seats, take a furtive glance at the text messages appearing on their phone, and tune out.  Some of them will be recording the lecture for later transcription.  Some of them will be doing homework for other classes; a few will be taking notes on the lecture.  And the lecture?  Well, it will be the instructor digesting the assigned readings, repeating a lot of the information, and perhaps adding a few insights and some context or making some connections that weren't in the textbook.  Early in the semester, students will realize that they can get an A just by having access to the lecture notes.  These days, that doesn't require regular class attendance.  Groups of students will take a class, rotate attendance, and share notes with one another.  As well,  a week or so before the exam, desperate emails will circulate from students who missed most of the class meetings but need the lecture notes (I know about these emails because, often, they forget to delete the email addresses of the instructor and teaching assistants).  Some kind soul, in an act of misguided altruism, will post their notes on google docs and share with the entire class.  They will do the same with any study guides that are handed out.

THIS is the classroom that my students know; it is a space that is comfortable and familiar to them.  They know what their role is and they think they know what my role is.  I am learning this semester that a major source of student dissatisfaction with the flipped class is owed to discomfort.  I am taking their familiar space and redefining it (without their permission, mind you).  I am forcing them to take on entirely new roles in this space, roles that require them to DO something, roles that require them to BE THERE.  In other words, I have not only pushed them out of their comfort zone; I have completely removed their comfort zone (as they see it).  Suddenly, everything they thought they knew about their role and my role has been declared null and void.  It doesn't apply.  Some of them embraced their new roles as active students in an active classroom with an instructor who does something other than lecture at them during class time.  But others of them are angry.  They had mastered the old, familiar system and were perfectly content with it.  They want it back, darn it.  And they are going to kick and scream (figuratively) until it is restored and they are back to feeling comfortable.

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