Thursday, January 24, 2013

Student-Centered or Student-Driven Teaching?

A central tenet of the flipped class model is the idea that the instructor goes from being a "sage on the stage" to a "guide on the side."  That is, that the focus of attention in the classroom shifts from the instructor to the students.  In principle, this is exactly how teaching should work.  After all, as instructors we can only provide a meaningful and well-conceived learning experience; and supply some coaching and motivation.  But we can't learn for our students.  The operating principle of a lecture--that knowledge can be transferred from lecturing instructor to passively listening (and perhaps note-taking) student--is absurd.  I am reminded of this frequently, when I ask an exam question about a topic that I explained in detail during a lecture and my words and ideas come back to me in jumbled, nonsensical form.  In a large enrollment class (<100 students), however, alternatives to the lecture are tricky to implement.

In the aftermath of my first attempt at flipping a large enrollment "lecture" class (and at the start of my re-designed, second attempt), I've come to the conclusion that one of the greatest difficulties in incorporating the techniques of blended learning in a large-enrollment class is the fact that we are completely overturning the student-teacher relationship in the classroom.  It was a challenge for me to adjust to this; and it was clearly a struggle for my students to figure out how to hold up their end of the bargain in a flipped classroom.  A student-centered instructional model means that students have a much greater responsibility for what happens during class time.  It became evident in my Fall 2012 class that the students were not always eager to take on this extra responsibility.  Indeed, resistance to the flipped class primarily took the form of resistance to taking responsibility for what happened in class.  The majority of the class wanted me to run the show while they watched rather than actively constructing their own experience.  In fact, they actively resisted my efforts to get them to take control of their learning experience in the class.  This meant that class meetings often felt useless even to me (and almost certainly to many of them).  As well, I felt terribly frustrated that I had handed over control to a group of students who, as a group, were not willing to take on that responsibility.

One of the things I spent a lot of time meditating on over the winter break was the distinction between student-centered and student-driven teaching.  I realized that, in my fall class, I had designed a class that depended on the students themselves to assume control of and responsibility for their learning.  When they didn't do that, the class didn't work as well as it could have and should have.  In addition, there was no easy way for me to step in and take back some of the control (and responsibility).  Once I was "on the side" it was tough to get back on that stage, even just a little.  In my spring 2013 class, I have approached the question of a student-centered course design from a different perspective.  Realizing the problems that can arise when students drive the in class sessions, I have stepped back on the stage.  At the same time, I have deliberately shed the role of sage and adopted the persona of the guide who is slowly but surely edging off of that stage.  My course design puts the students front and center.  Their needs and character drive it and, as the semester progresses, I will adapt as necessary to their willingness to take over the controls; but, if they opt to be more passive, I am ready to step back on the stage and work at getting them to take more responsibility for their learning experience.

Most of all, I learned that I cannot expect my students--students who have been trained to be passive recipients of knowledge--to suddenly rejoice at the opportunity to play a more active role in the classroom and in their learning experience.  In reality, they don't know what to do when given the controls.  It's a bit like expecting a ten year old who has ridden in a car for many years to know how to drive that car.  But, with a lot of orientation, practice, and guidance, I do think that they can learn what to do.  I also think that, by gradually handing over control to them over the course of several weeks rather than all at once at the start of the semester, more of them will embrace the opportunity to play an active role in their learning.

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