September 13, 2014
Most of my adult professional experiences have included both the teacher and the learner concurrently. I began my college education in child development at the same time a novice teacher of young children. I continued earning my degrees as I explored differing areas of the field; not once having the opportunity to just be a learner and continue to do so. Perhaps, this experiences is what causes me to conclude that while Benander’s article has merit and value, I find it rather juvenile. Shouldn’t we already know this? Is it typical that professors are so removed from the student experience and narcissistic that we believe we exist just to convey knowledge and assess learning? I hope never to meet or be that professor, let alone take a course from him/her.
Benander raises interesting point of consideration concerning novice and expert perspectives on learning. I find the article lacking an alternate perspective on the inevitable challenges of role reversal. Benander (2009, pp. 37) states “As experts in their fields, professors forget the confusion of novelty that students experience in classes.” While this may be the experience of some professors, it can’t be for those professors who are largely concerned with student success.Professors who are student-driven make an intentional effort to learn about their students, their challenges, and their strengths. To be a competent teacher, professors, adjunct and instructor, all must take on the role of learner simultaneously as teacher. How else can one respond to students in meaningful ways? Perhaps, what is needed is a redefining of what it means to teach. If teaching is merely to determine content and application knowledge, then I suppose included student-driven in that definition may not be necessary. A test could determine knowledge content. A quantitative assessment of skill application could determine competency. However, if we truly believe in constructionist and socio-cultural learning, then teacher interactions, involvement and reflections with students are an essential component of teaching and learning. Therefore, teachers must be learners as well as educators.
Benander describes experiential learning as “the adult learner as participating in an activity, then reflecting on the activity to make generalizations that he or she can then apply in new situations. (2009, pp.36)” Benander connects this way of learning as a way for professors to understand the experience of their students. Reflection of this type is not just for students, but can, and dare I say, should be practiced during and after each teaching opportunity. Professors do not need to become students to build a meaningful understanding of the student experience. Professors do need to be open to learn from their students, listen carefully to them, ask probing questions about the student experience, and be willing to accept constructive criticism and student suggestions for materials, activity, textbook and assignment choices. After all, we expect them to be in a position of reflection, change, adaptation and inquiry. Should we not model these characteristics for them?
When asked to list and evaluate our learning communities, I listed student discussions, evaluations and feedback as one. Brooks, (2010, pp. 265) states “The constructivist learning philosophy situates knowledge as generated through interaction with others, through engagement in one’s environment, and as existing in a constant state of renewal. That is, learning and knowledge production are social processes that are negotiated through interactions.” My personal teaching philosophy includes the assumption that all people learn in a socio-cultural context and construct their own learning. Student engagement and the quality of the interactions are central to how well students trust my competence, equifinality, and direct involvement. Because I am a requisite part of the social context of the classroom learning environment, I fail to meet their learning needs if they are not free to risk. Risk means that I take the role of learner when they pose different ideas than mine or question the validity of my argument and thesis. If student are to construct knowledge on-going, this effort requires that I construct new knowledge as well. Conversely, I would assume I know everything there is to know about my field. Consequently, I would become one of the professor Benander encourages to become a student.
Being a student myself, apart from being a learner in the courses I teach, has lasting and meaningful value. I find the most helpful learning occurs when the subject matter is new to me or not very familiar but of interest. I often think about how I can use the new learning in my current teaching. For example: I attended a summer session at UAF on earthquakes. The intensity and damage that occurred during the 1964 earthquake can be used to teach students the importance of relationships and attachment. I encouraged students to think about what was important to survivors directly after the earthquake. Were people interested in making hair appointments? The latest fashions? Accumulation of “stuff?’ What did they think about? Those people thought about their relationships. For those that survived, who could they connect with to process the event and take solace? Who could help them find food, water and shelter? Objects become a distant memory, people and relationships are of primary concern and preoccupation.
Benander’s suggests being mindful of the indirect modeling by her professor during her role as learner. I appreciate the reminder that to students the power differential can be a part of their daily experience. Reminding students that while I do have power to assess a grade for them, they determine the grade based on their performance. This exercise is a question of trust for them. I know they want to believe that I would give them the grade they earn, but all too often students have experienced unfair grading, at least that is their perspective.
Based on the information from this week’s unit, I plan to review the article “Introduction to Faculty Learning Communities” and commit to exploring one this academic year. I do not have this strategy on my list of learning communities.