/ pedagogy

Emergence and instructor guidance

Lee Skallerup Bessette published a blog post today, Teaching and Learning as Paying Attention, which I very much appreciated. Lee writes:

I believe very deeply in empowering students to take ownership of their learning. But I also believe in my role as someone who facilitates a space where they are confronted with the limits of their knowledge, of their perspective, of their worldview. This class, then, for me, is an opportunity for all of us to pay attention, notice, and then create and learn.

This point really resonated with me, in large part because of some discussions I've had recently about predetermined learning outcomes, emergent learning, and "content" in higher education (most recently with Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel on Twitter). Typically, an educator who, like me, espouses critical pedagogy, is pushing for less emphasis on content and predetermined learning objectives. However, when discussing educational philosophy "in-house" with other critical pedagogues, I've found myself increasingly defending the idea of predetermined content objectives. This is not because I believe that "content is king," or anything of the kind. This is because I believe that the kind of emergent learning we seek is facilitated by the presence of a large, diverse base of knowledge within the learning community, and that, as Lee expresses, the critically minded agency we seek to foster in our students can often be best facilitated by the careful, expert guidance of an instructor.

I wrote about my educational goals in my blog post, Student-centered curriculum:

the goal of education is to empower and equip students to be critically minded agents. While instructor guidance may be appropriate, the ultimate goal is for students to be capable of making these decisions.

And with a bit more detail about "content" (from Why grade?):

[M]y purpose as an educator is largely not to instill content knowledge. My goal is for my students to learn how to learn, and to gain skills that will allow them to continue learning independently once the course is over. Those skills will certainly require content knowledge or, at least, familiarity, but content is important primarily to the extent that it supports students' intellectual growth within the discipline.

For me, content knowledge is absolutely not the end goal. The goal is independence, agency, intellectual maturity, an ability to...

internaliz[e] the standard, accepted ways of doing things in such a robust way that we become aware of all the holes in those modes of thinking, the connections between seeming disparate things, the possibilities (and impossibilities) of what new things can be done... or at least should be tried (Backwards design in education).

While I agree with Sean and Jesse that we should be suspicious of every claim regarding the importance of content, content knowledge plays an important role in accomplishing these critical pedagogical goals.

So does instructor guidance. In Designing for Emergence: The Role of the Instructor in Student-Centered Learning, Mary Stewart writes:

[A]uthority also exists in student-centered classrooms, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. ...

The reality is that the instructor always designs an environment that allows for emergence. No matter how much we may want it to be the case, the environments in which students guide themselves do not spontaneously spring into existence in the courses that most of us teach because students do not come to our classes in the same way they would come to a community of practice. Instead, such environments are carefully designed and the instructor presence within them is deliberately crafted. It also requires a considerable amount of skill and finesse to be a teacher in these environments — as Keith Brennan has argued, “many of Connectivism’s finest practitioners … model and cheerlead. They scaffold and support.” They are active participants and leaders in the courses they teach.

What Mary describes here is exactly my experience. While I'd love for my classes to immediately take shape as emergent, collaborative learning environments, that often takes time and hard work, from me and from the students. And for profound epiphanies to take place, we need a strong base of content to build on, critique, and at times, reject. But, again, this content ― even the instructor ― is not central.

Ultimately, designing a student-centered, even student-driven, course aimed at emergent, epiphanal learning is really hard. And it's easy to slip into old instructor-centered habits. These kind of learning environments don't "spontaneously spring into existence." This kind of pedagogy takes both nuance in design, and a lot of self-discipline in implementation. And this is the expertise that teachers really need to cultivate, and then bring into the classroom.