Part 3 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer
This chapter handles the most contentious topic in the entire book, sharing more power with our students. Practically, this means allowing them to make more decisions about assignments, course policies, course content, and even evaluation. To be blunt, that’s just sounds threatening to most of us. Loss of power in the classroom might mean loss of control, or worse, a classroom characterized by shared ignorance. Weimer demonstrates that power is just one side of the coin; the other side is responsibility. Students and teachers cannot have one without the other.
A Power Sharing Story
I’ll give an example from my last semester. I teach an online course to high school seniors. When they returned from a week of spring break followed by an out-of-class enrichment week, there was not much time left the quarter. On top of that a devious thing know as senioritis had infected the everyone (this syndrome is know to infect teachers, too). The next 7 weeks involved collaborative research, a project, a project evaluation, and a group presentation. I mocked up a schedule and posted it to the course site. Then I got a couple nice emails drawing my attention to the fact that some of the dates were not lining up. I began to question if the whole thing was just too much and if I just needed to go back to my reading-quiz-online discussion format.
So, I put it in their court and asked their teams to pick due dates that they thought would be more realistic. I even presented them the option to drop the assignments and go back to the more conventional learning activities (which I thought would be their choice). To my surprise, they chose to go through with it, created a schedule that worked, and did some of the best work I’ve seen from 4th quarter Seniors. Here’s what I learned: Choice begets ownership, and ownership plays well in the classroom.
In learner-centered classrooms, power is redistributed in amounts proportional to students’ ability to handle it. Parents of a teenager with a new driver’s license don’t hand over the keys to the family car Friday night and say, ‘Have a nice weekend. We’ll need the car back Monday morning.’…Students are not running the class, and teachers are not abrogating legitimate instructional responsibilities.
How to Change the Balance of Power
The author gives several concrete examples from giving them a variety of assignments to choose from, to creating policies for how student participation will be evaluated. This one on participation caught my attention. Will the teacher cold call students to answer questions, or will it be necessary that students volunteer? Should there be a minimum or maximum number of student comments per class period? Weimer found that when her students were allowed to create participation policies, they were “more aware of the participation dynamic in the classroom,” and that overall participation improved.
The chapter ends with several important questions: How much power is enough to motivate? How much decision making are students ready to handle? How do you know when you are abrogating legitimate instructional responsibility? These aren’t easily answered, and my guess is that they are answered in real-time and in a process of trial and error. Every group of students has a different dynamic, and every age group presents particular developmental realities. However, it seems that our students are usually able to handle more than we first believe they can handle. Isn’t that one of Chickering’s 7 Principles, “Good Practice Communicates High Expectations.”
In part 4 of this review, we’ll look at how content is not covered for students but used by them.
Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon
Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon