The teacher’s job is threefold. First, the teacher protects the intellectual and social rights of students. Second, the teacher provides the scaffolding necessary so that the student can become independent of her, in critical thinking, communication skills, ethics, networking awareness and skills, and technology exposure and skills. Third, the teacher guides the student into respectful awareness of her or his interdependence with other living beings and helps the student become ethically active in these networks.
In order to fulfill these responsibilities, I practice learner-centered, inquiry-driven (problem-based) teaching, because it addresses the learning needs of the whole person. I believe that human beings learn best when four requirements are met: (1) that the new concepts and skills be relatable to their prior experience and knowledge; (2) that the new concepts and skills be modeled by a more experienced other, who can demonstrate comprehension, acquisition, and practice; (3) that the students are provided with hands-on experience, including “play time,” in which to explore the possibilities and implications of the new concepts and skills; and (4) that students are encouraged to apply and expand their new knowledge through reflective engagement with the daily life of their families and communities. First and foremost, students must be recognized as founts of knowledge, skills, and understanding in their own right, and not as blank slates or know-nothings when they come to class. Inquiry-driven education meets all these requirements.
In contrast, many composition teachers are still working within the framework of formalism, without applying additional, postmodern lenses of critical theory such as rhetoric, postcolonialism, feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, environmental critical theory, or consumer culture theory. A formalist textbook simultaneously underestimates and overestimates what students are capable of, by positioning students as receptacles of authorized content instead of as independent interpreters and evaluators of formatting, organization, and persuasion choices.
For example, one primarily formalist composition textbook, The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing:
- asks students to reflect on other writing they have done for class, but does not ask students to relate the skills described in the text with skills they already have and use every day in their real lives;
- does model skills and demonstrate comprehension, acquisition, and practice, but only on texts that do not in any way resemble most of the texts these students will be confronted with or asked to create in their lifetimes, making it unlikely that most of these students will ever wield the tools they are taught with any real understanding of their potential;
- provides extremely limited opportunities for “play time,” in which students are asked “What did you learn?” but are not seriously invited to investigate the phenomenon under discussion and define its parts and purposes for themselves (the text always presents itself as the supreme authority on these questions);
- does not ever interrogate the ethics of message creation beyond the issue of plagiarism, does not present its own messages with any transparency about its power paradigm, and does not encourage students to interrogate the ways in which power paradigms are created and recreated in their own social groups or in society at large.
In other words, it is does not protect the rights of students, teach students how to be independent of the teacher, foster students’ awareness of their interdependence with other living beings and their personal responsibility and power, or encourage their ethical participation in social and environmental networks. It does not prepare students for the multiple and varied audiences inherent in postmodern (or post-postmodern) contemporary life, because formalism teaches a set of rules that apply only to one kind of audience. Formalism does not make plain to students how and why those rules came to be, and it does not willingly admit that its rules will change in the future. Formalist teachers, in my experience, are highly unlikely to communicate to students the reasons for changes to the rules of formalism. In this way, they further obscure the power structure of formalism and contribute to student disempowerment.
This is good reason for teaching using other critical theories, such as rhetoric, feminism, queer theory, postcolonialism, etc. All these critical theories make patterns of power obvious and encourage careful examination of the means by which these powers become established. The world we live in now absolutely requires that its citizens be able to identify and characterize varying audiences and write persuasively for those audiences. The world we live in now is dominated by governmental and corporate and social powers that send persuasive messages to our students to encourage them to remain passive consumers of ideas and products, instead of arming them to investigate and debunk these attempts at social control.
I train students to connect new ideas and skills to prior knowledge; to analyze techniques modeled by effective communicators; to develop their own communication skills sets, specific to their strengths and interests but expandable as needed; to understand the need to take risks and explore new possibilities; to write in real-world contexts, according to audience requirements and their own persuasive goals; and to listen with an open mind to others’ thoughts, secure in the knowledge that they can separate the persuasive technique from the actual argument, thus releasing themselves from the fear of being manipulated and empowering them to join in the discussion in respectful yet powerful ways.
The Inquiry Process and the Learner’s Bill of Rights
Embracing inquiry-driven education has some surprising side effects. One way my teaching has changed as a result of centering my practice around the inquiry model is that now I see that my role as a teacher means that I must be a protector of student rights as much as I am a mentor or a model of accomplishment. This new perspective has a direct impact on each course I teach, from the first day of class forward.
For example, when I set out to teach a group of students, I give them a map of the semester ahead. It is a map of the inquiry process, and it looks like this:
For most of my students, the structure of this map comes as a surprise. They tell me that they expected the map to look like this:
Teacher speaks –> Student listens –> Teacher assigns reading –>
Student reads –> Student writes boring, pointless paper –> Student gets grade
So I contextualize the map with a few basic concepts. “First,” I explain, “we will assume that each of us is an individual mind, separate from the external world. As individual minds, we use our senses to learn about the world. Our brains process this data and interpret it to help us choose our actions. Over time, some information is shown to be more generally valuable in achieving our goals, and we stop questioning whether it is accurate. Individual knowledge is made of general principles that we choose, at least temporarily, to accept without question.
“But we are also members of groups, lots of groups. Each group to which we belong has a process of creating, discussing, negotiating, and prioritizing messages that result in knowledge that is authorized by the group. By originating persuasive messages, individuals gain respect and power within the group. However, if individuals present messages that the group does not accept, the group will either silence the dissenting voice or eject that individual from the group.”
My students understand this group knowledge-making process, most poignantly from the savage groupings they endured in high school. I explain that these grouping tendencies continue into adulthood, and that all animal groups, including humans, prioritize the kinds of messages that help them get what they want. Academics prioritize certain kinds of knowledge that gang members don’t, and vice versa—but every member of any group is using persuasive messages in order to obtain or control social power by establishing her or his knowledge as preeminent.
All my students are interested in power. Right now, they have very little power. They are attending college because society tells them this is the place to get qualified to gain more power, power over their own futures and those of their families.
Then I explain this very important point that somehow my students have previously missed: “You are not here to write boring, pointless papers. All your assigned readings, essays, and papers are designed to teach you to evaluate others’ views and to be ethically persuasive. Every human being on earth is engaged in this process, but we are going to do it more clearly and carefully than you have ever done it before. Because knowledge is socially determined and constantly changing, each of you has the potential to change the world. You all have funds of expertise and knowledge. We are here to share our knowledge, reflect on it, ask new questions, investigate to find answers, and create messages that will persuade others to take us seriously. Persuasion is a powerful, dangerous tool, and together we will decide how to go about it in a socially responsible manner.”
I instruct my students in this map of the inquiry process because I want to make sure they know I understand their goals and see their potential. It is impossible to teach someone who does not trust her teacher. When students see me as an ally, they trust that I am offering them something valuable, even if they do not at first understand what I am asking them to do. They are predisposed to learn from me, and, with my encouragement, from each other.
There are certain principles of teaching that present students with powerful evidence that I am their ally. This list of principles is oriented on an idea from Paulo Freire: “One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Not coincidentally, adhering to these principles also results in the most effective learning process for my students. I call them the Learner’s Bill of Rights:
- Learners deserve a map, so they can see where they’re supposed to be going.
- Learners have the right to require a reason that makes sense to them to care about the subject and the task at hand.
- Learners deserve to know that their strengths are recognized and valued by their teachers.
- Learners deserve to know that they are valued as people by their teachers, no matter what strengths they do or do not possess. This is not the same as getting grades based on their personhood; grades reflect achievement. However, each student deserves respect for and recognition of her/his value as a person.
- Learners have the right to personal privacy.
- Learners have a right to make their own knowledge, when, how, and why they please. The teacher’s role is to support and teach careful thinking, not predetermined conclusions.
- Learners have the right to make mistakes, to take the consequences, and to have the opportunity to make new knowledge as a result of their mistakes.
- If a teacher interferes in a learner’s process, it should be to attempt to present ideas and information in a way that the learner can best understand and make use of. The learner’s needs are more important than the teacher’s needs.
This is a bill of learner’s rights instead of student’s rights because I am a learner, too. I let my students know that I am continually testing new strategies for teaching, evaluating student work, and obtaining feedback. I engage my students in discussion, research, and writing as fellow learners, for though I am a more experienced learner, I am also learning from them.
I tell my students plainly that it takes patience, humility, and tremendous effort to know anything, and every individual’s knowledge is somewhat social and somewhat individual. They have the opportunity, the right, and the responsibility to speak out for what they believe in, but they must also learn to really listen. They don’t have to agree, but they should honestly allow space in their minds to understand the opposing or alternative views. This understanding and respectful engagement is the gift I try to give them in class and in my comments on their work, so they can see how it is done.
For specific examples of how these principles inform my teaching practice, see Appendix D: The Learner’s Bill of Rights.
I use a variety of methods to achieve my teaching goals, and I am always looking for better ways to accomplish this. Some of the methods I use most regularly are:
I use instructional media to supplement in-class activities and homework. In addition to using TED talks, podcasts, and video recordings from shows like Charlie Rose, I make my own media. Students may not know the lyrics to a popular song, so if I use one, I make a video of the song lyrics using the song itself as a soundtrack. Also, PowerPoint presentations, recorded onscreen with a soundtrack, make high-quality informational videos. In addition, I create YouTube videos of my screen while I audiorecord lectures about handouts I provide to the students via Blackboard. Students are assigned to watch these outside of class, write reflections on these media, and come to class ready to discuss the media content. This arrangement allows me to fit in some content that would not otherwise fit into a late start course, and the diversity of informational channels keeps students emotionally engaged. Because I add subtitles to most of my movies, this strategy has also turned out to be very helpful for international, deaf, or hard of hearing students, who can miss 15-30% of what I say in lectures in class.
Students may be required to complete and post on Blackboard a single reflection for every class period, including the reading or viewing that they should have completed before class that day. They are given a format to follow, and any reflection not following the format receives fewer points. I have tried having them reflect before class vs. after class; when they reflect after class, I get a better sense of what works well in the classroom and how well they understand the course texts.
I teach notetaking in class, via modeling and practice. Most students have no idea how to pick out the important stuff when they are taking notes. I show them that notetaking assumes that the speaker is organized and has primary points, secondary points, examples, and evidence—just like a research paper. I also teach them to take notes via songs with gestures, drawings, bubble maps, lists, and actual maps of physical territories, because human brains use many strategies to connect new knowledge to old knowledge, and I want my students to use as much of their brains as possible.
Sometimes, I assign students to take tests on Blackboard to follow up on activities in class, or to make sure they take notes on their flipped classroom assignments. Because I want my students to use their notes and their textbooks and other reference materials, all my tests are open book, open note. Thus, the test is both practice and feedback.
Maps and Models
I give students a map of each semester in the syllabus and course calendar. I also provide outlines and sample student work for reflections, 5-paragraph essays, research papers, and source sandwiches, as well as anything else I ask them to do that they have never done for me before.
I structure in-class groups for the purpose of helping students make friends and develop a sense of community in class. Alternatively, I will often introduce a seating chart partway through a semester, to maximize students’ opportunities to engage with students they would not otherwise get to know. At the beginning of the semester, I pass around a contact information sheet for their use in contacting each other, and I tell them I don’t help them make up missed class days, so they need to take good notes so they can ask each other what they missed. I do this to encourage them to rely on one another outside of class (and to take notes).
Both small-group and whole-class discussion are useful, and I use them to accomplish different things. In small groups, some students share more. In large groups, other students share more. Sometimes I combine both kinds of discussion, using small groups to elicit consensus or unique ideas, then asking the small groups to share the significant points of their discussion with the class.
A lot of what is called “active learning” does not require that the format of the learning activity model the principle being taught. For example, I have had my students play a game in which they separate into two teams and compete for extra credit points by formatting bibliography entries on the chalkboard. It’s a slow game, but it’s fun and it helps them learn to use their reference materials. But it is a random merging of format and principle, and the students know it.
When I can, I try to match the format to the principle, as when I send two students out of the room, then ask the remaining students to reorganize the desks and chairs into a maze with a single entry and a single exit. I blindfold the first student in the hall and have another student talk her/him through the maze, using only the words, “forward,” “stop,” “back,” “left,” and “right.” The other students cannot make any noise while this is happening. Once the first student has gotten to the end of the maze, I take off the blindfold and go blindfold the second student, who has been waiting in the hall. This time, I walk with the blindfolded student, using just enough descriptive words so that the student gets through easily. Once I’ve taken the blindfold off the second student, the three students involved tell the class what it was like to participate. Then the whole class talks about how their role as writer is to guide a reader through unfamiliar territory that he/she cannot see. Suddenly, organization and clarity matter. I much prefer this unity of format and principle, so that every activity does real work toward improving student understanding and performance.
“Blackboard” here refers to the online course platform, not the predecessor of the whiteboard we currently use. Most of my students at CLC were low-income, and many were multilingual and first-generation college students. About a third to a half of my students each semester did not have a desktop or laptop computer at home. They relied on smartphones—either their own or the smartphone of a friend—and the computers available for student use on campus in order to access Blackboard.
You could argue that this lack of access is a powerful reason not to use Blackboard, or at least to avoid using it much. I believe the opposite is true. Students who lack access also lack experience in online navigation, interaction, and production. By requiring students to use Blackboard to turn in assignments and find course materials, I am making sure they get the experience they need to recognize hyperlinks, remember where they are in a complex website, post comments, and conclude transactions. All of these are basic skills required for modern life—and modern education. Besides, if I have my students turn in all their papers on Blackboard, they are able to learn from one another’s work, post new drafts for regrading whenever they like, and see their grades in realtime.