But one of the perennial challenges of teaching in a conscientious and open-minded way is that students come to us with very fixed expectations about what college (or high school) are about, what learning is, and what the roles of instructor and student are supposed to be. And these expectations can be very tough to dislodge.
I was reminded of this by Maryellen Weimer's post about a sociology instructor who tried some unorthodox methods that students resisted. The methods themselves are only a little outside the box, but certainly not unheard of. The general idea was to have the course be more student directed,“a classroom environment focused on knowledge creation rather than the transmission of information where students felt part of an intellectual community that balanced support and control."
The students, rather than seeing this as a change to learn more or better, resented
the need to comply with what looked to them like a set of idiosyncratic expectations. Students find great comfort in being able to predict what teachers will require them to do.The most capable and prepared students were actually the most resistant:
instead of being the most receptive to change, honors students may be the most resistant. “Honors students are granted that designation specifically because they are skilled at understanding and enacting/exploiting the institutional and normative student role.”(I have to say that's also been my experience with many high-performing students: They are highly skilled at understanding how 'the system works' and are thrown when an instructor won't conform to the system. In the language of intentional learning, they are performing or conforming learners.)
I imagine that for many of us instructors, this is a familiar story: We experiment with non-standard methods or approaches, students resist these methods or approaches, the methods or approaches end up failing because students didn't engage with them. What makes this especially frustrating is that if you are conscientiously trying to innovate and one's colleagues elsewhere in the institution are not, you're swimming against the tide of student expectations. As Weimer remarks, “it is a lot of work and an inconvenience to students when what occurs in a single class is significantly out of step with the expectations encountered throughout the majority of the institution.”
This raises a whole host of issues, but here are a few questions we might entertain:
- Should teaching methods and approaches be more standardized? At universities, academic freedom is not intended to extend to teaching methods. You don't have the right to teach badly. But I sometimes think that university faculty act as if this freedom extends to teaching as well, in effect giving faculty the same autonomy in the classroom they are given in their research. Is this a good policy? Colleges and universities say they want high-quality, innovative teaching, but how successful can such teaching be if it's anomalous, isolated, and set up to fail because students won't engage with methods that are unfamiliar and ask them to meet different expectations? Perhaps the only way to make educational innovation pedagogically successful is to have everyone at an institution doing it. (I gather that's the approach at places like Evergreen State.)
- Learning is a permanent change in one's cognitive repertoire or effectiveness. You can't learn what you already know. So no one learns by repeatedly doing what she can already do. How do we sell students (particularly those whose picture of education is consumerist and credential-oriented) on the idea that learning requires some challenge or discomfort — that the process of learning has to be disorienting to some extent? How have you done this?
- Is it sensible to try and justify unorthodox methods or approaches to students? What have you tried in an effort to get student buy-in for these methods or approaches?