Weekly Writing: Unit 1 Teachers As Learners

AnneMarie Mattacchione
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.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Weekly Writing: Unit 1 Teachers As Learners

  1. Bob

    “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.”

    I love this question. I have worked in higher education since 1991 in several different capacities (since 1985 if we count being a student too). At one time I imagined that I would be a professor. In that time I have observed different answers to your question. I suspect there are several peaces one can make from the inside out with the role of “expert.” One of them is as unsavory as you suggest in this phrasing of the question — I can name particular people who fit your description and more than a few. In addition I have seen at least two other ways to make peace with this role: one, this subject is their profession, how they make a living and it is a professional persona that they wear at work (higher education is an industry of certification and training after all a cynical response is pragmatic). Second, others understand themselves to be life-long learners partnered with this current bunch of learners — in learning to learn within the disciplinary context of a particular inquiry. However, they are notable for a pervasive curiosity and unusual.

    Over the last 25-30 years our relationship to knowledge has changed. The theories of constructivist and connectivist learning show our attempts to grapple with this truism. I no longer am interested in “expertise” as I first stumbled upon it in higher education. I hint at a different model that of mid-level practitioners in several “subjects” who produce high level performances in the instances between those “subjects” — in my essay below I offer the mixed martial artist as an example. But, recently I stumbled on a meme on linkedin defining the skills of “data scientist” that lead me to this article: https://www.datasciencecentral.com/profiles/blogs/data-scientist-core-skills. Simply said there is no way to be an expert in all eleven of those skills rather we satisfice for mid-level practice in all of them. I wonder if this is our new definition of “expertise”? How do we in higher education do a better job at this task? I suspect we need to get outside of ourselves to begin to answer this. I love your goal to explore learning communities and I wish you the best with it. I encourage you to get outside the pale of higher education there are teachers in the military, in business, in non-profits… cast your net wide.

    Reply
    1. Owen

      Hey Bob,

      Nice response to AnneMarie!

      On the subject of connectivism, I’m a bit of a skeptic. How is the skill at making connections across a variety of disciplines different now than what a quality classical liberal arts education provided in the 18th century? Renaissance scholars didn’t have to know everything in a particular discipline, they gained skill in the process of inquiry and in filtering resources. Much like the ancient Greeks. (I’m a bit of a classicist :)).

      I really enjoyed your mixed-martial-artist example. I am a bit of a generalist myself. Like you, I have a background in the humanities and in IT. However, when it comes to specialists, we continue to need them more than ever. I’ve had several close acquaintances need specialist medical care recently. The tech industry has fleets of jobs that are ever more specialized, as does scientific research, etc… All of which are probably supported and strengthened by a strong broad-based foundational education.

      Has anything has changed in this respect since before civilization?

      Reply
  2. Owen

    AnneMarie,

    You raise several interesting points. One that amused Bob, amused me as well… “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.”

    Typical? I hope not. Does the attitude exist to varying degrees with some prevalence on many college campuses? Yes.

    And you proceed to make a very compelling case, one I agree with, that teachers should also be learners, and that the two go hand in hand in a perfect world.

    However, I wonder, are there novices and experts in the field of early childhood education? If there is a spectrum of experience/knowledge across the field of professionals, what are the differences and how are they manifest?

    Might it be that novice teachers aren’t aware that to be an expert teacher, being a devoted learner might be requisite? Many faculty are experts within their discipline but are novices when it comes to teaching. If we as education professionals have spent years and years studying education, and your average faculty member has spent years and years studying their specialty (chemistry, economics, art, etc.) should we expect them to exhibit expert level competency as educators?

    Many good starting points for inquiry.

    Reply

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