Part 5 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer
In grad school, I took a few counseling courses as a part of my degree program. In one, the the professor related this story. A woman comes in for a counseling session and she is at her wits end with her fourteen year old daughter. She lists a litany of issues: staying out past curfew, smoking, talking back, and leaving her room a wreck. The counselor chooses to tackle the messy room because it looks like the easiest to change on the list.
Counselor: “What happens when you ask her to clean her room?”
Client: “She just ignores me now; that, or she starts yelling about something being unfair and unreasonable.”
Counselor: “So, what do you do when that doesn’t work?”
Client: “Well, it gets so bad that I go upstairs and clean things up.”
Counselor: “Why do you do that?”
Client: “Well, she wouldn’t have anything to wear for school if we just leave her dirty laundry laying all over the place.”
The principle that my professor was trying to explain to us was this: Our real problem is often our attempted solution. The author starts this chapter, The Responsibility for Learning, with that same concept.
She says that the first step in shifting more of the responsibility for learning into the hands of our students is to recognize the practices we may have in place creating passive and dependent learners. Our syllabi get longer and longer with added clarifications and new policies, we use extrinsic motivators like points and pop quizzes, and it’s still an uphill battle.
So what’s her solution? Classroom Climate.
Learner-centered teaching is about creating classrooms in which students begin to mature and act more responsibly about their own learning an toward the learning of others.
– Maryellen Weimer
My first response to this was, “How can changing something as abstract as ‘climate’ in the classroom transform students into active and responsible learners?”
Well, it turns out that classroom climate is not all that abstract. In fact, a group of researchers created a classroom environment inventory for colleges and universities, and found a set of defining characteristics of a preferred classroom environment. What’s it look like?
- There are opportunities for professor-student interaction and concern
- Student are involved in classroom activities
- A high quality of student-student interaction
- Learning activities are well organized
- Students really enjoy class
- The instructor creates innovative learning activities
- Students are given opportunities to make decisions to correspond with their learning needs
The author goes on to list five relational dynamics that create this kind of climate. They are the kind of thing you might find in any good book on parenting.
- Logical Consequences
- High Standards
- Commitment to Learning
The rest of the chapter explains how to involve students in creating, maintaining, and enhancing the the classroom climate. She offers sample activity ideas, and addresses some of the common challenges a teacher may encounter when trying to make this shift.
A Story – First Grade Scholars
I have been reading Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Switch. In the book they relate a story about a young teacher who took her below level first grade class (some who didn’t even know how to hold a pencil) to 90% of the kids reading at 3rd grade in the course of just one school year. When you read the story, it’s all about climate. She presented them with a goal: to become 3rd graders. She had high standards, and decided to call here students “scholars.” One day a young scholar was called away from class for an appointment. The other scholars groaned. Why? Because their classmate was going to miss out on learning. Now that’s classroom climate!
How about Classroom Climate Online?
Let’s just take Weimer’s list and look at some examples:
- Logical Consequences – Build the course reading into meaningful and interactive learning activities. For instance, create discussions that require your students to use content from course texts.
- Consistency – Model social presence, injecting your voice and presence into the course through consistent communication and timely responses. Hold your ground on your policies. Students will often want extensions, or for me to make an exception. However, they won’t come out and ask. So, I put it back in their court and ask, “What exactly do you believe would be the best way to handle this and why?” While I may not hold to my guns 100%, what happens in the process of our exchange is that they craft a reasonable solution.
- High Standards – Give your students what the Heath Brothers call a Destination Postcard, a vision of what they will learn or who they will become as they proceed through the course (like the first grade third graders).
- Caring – Check your student participation reports and check in with students who have not logged in for a while. Ask if they need any assistance.
- Commitment to Learning – Let your student’s know what you’re reading and learning. Communicate your love for the subject matter in your recordings.
Those are just some quick examples of practices that create this kind of online course climate.
The next installment of this book review will look at how learner-centered teaching handles assessment.
Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon
Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon