Monday, May 13, 2013

Fostering Community in the Classroom

Last week I had one of those teaching days that puts a spring back in your step and reminds you that teaching is a wonderful part of the job. The funny thing is that this moment had very little to do with anything I did, though I want to understand the conditions that facilitated it so I can nudge my other classes in this direction.

My philosophy of education course has been a bit of a struggle this term. There are a wide range of students in that class in terms of philosophical background, writing ability, and general engagement with the topic. Discussion at the beginning of the term was often sluggish and superficial. However, last week my students had a frank and open conversation about higher education, its aims, what they were actually getting out of it, how it might be reformed, and about the history of our institution in general (the reading for the day was a journalist’s take on the history of City College). What was remarkable about the discussion wasn’t only the breadth of ideas and the depth with which students approached them, but the genuine appreciation students demonstrated for each other’s contributions. I find that students are often reluctant to really listen and engage with each other, and want the professor to take charge of the classroom and tell them what to think. But this class was markedly different. Students talked about how City’s admissions policy was critical to bringing more students like themselves to college and why being exposed to students from such different backgrounds was an important part of their education. It was interesting hearing students really bring to light how they saw themselves fitting into the college’s diverse community and genuinely acknowledge what other students in the classroom contributed to their education. Intellectually, this class was remarkable because students were building on each other’s ideas, asking good questions, and thinking critically about their own education. I was merely an astounded facilitator.

Of course, I would like to replicate this dynamic and so I’ve been thinking a lot more about what conditions facilitated this moment. I had being done more group work in this class and assigned permanent groups so that students could start building relationships with those in their groups. I also assigned a group to kick off the discussion each class, without input from me for the first 15-20 minutes. These were painful at first, but got better and better and I could see that students started taking responsibility for how good or bad the class discussion was. Some started the class with little skits while other groups came up with group activities or discussion games. I think the topic was also close to student’s own concerns and that must have had something to do with it.
 This class has led me to think a lot more about how to build community in the classroom and how to foster a sense of collective responsibility. I have come to see this as a crucial step in fostering the kind of learning environment that can lead to fruitful discussion. But, my experience with this class, is that the process to get there can be somewhat painful, though well worth it at the end. In what ways do you foster community in your classroom? How long does it usually take?


  1. Jennifer: Fostering genuine academic community can be tough. Often it arrives serendipitously. The one thing I'd say is that it's crucial to get beyond the teacher-student discursive ping-pong and get the students talking to one another. In my experience, community won't emerge if the course is like a set of interactions between individual students and the instructor. So though your feeling of community emerged late in the term, I'd say that's exceptional and that it's crucial to design activities, etc., early on that facilitate communication and engagement amongst the students.

  2. Thank you Michael. I think you are right that moving away from student/instructor interactions to student/student interactions is key. I learned a lot about teaching this semester by just seeing how important that is.

  3. Like you Jennifer, I find the sort of experience you describe uplifting and the circumstances or conditions for its facilitation somewhat perplexing. Like Michael, I think it's important to encourage interaction among students early on, yet I usually find that when these sorts of moments of 'authentic engagement' occur it's usually late in the semester. Also, I often find that they occur when the ideas of the course converge with students' immediate personal educational concerns (as seems to have happened in your example from the post). IN my most recent experience, this sort of engagement occurred during the Montreal student strike of last year to protest proposed tuition increases. At McGill, there was much less political support among the undergraduate (and graduate) student populations than at other Quebec institutions. There were no concerted attempts by students to prevent classes from being held as there were at other institutions. And McGill's admin was much more forceful in preempting and punishing student action than were other institutions. This all happened in the spring, near the end of my course in philosophical foundations of education. All of a sudden all my nice, mostly cozy liberal students were raising questions and demanding discussion of these issues in class (not that I was at all reluctant to accede to these demands!) -- noting that concerns such as education for personal autonomy, democratic citizenship and human flourishing seemed to be right at the centre of the motivation and justification for student protest marches happening around the city at the time. Students wanted to talk about what the implications of our course were for their own lives -- what should they do? Should they disobey/resist McGill admin policies in order to protest? What were the ethical and educational implications of disrupting classes for students who didn't support the strike? In other words, what sorts of educational implications followed from what we'd studied that semester for their lives in the here and now.

    I don't have a lot at the moment to say about what follows from all this. Except, perhaps, that I agree about the strong role serendipity plays, and I also agree that we can and should do what we can to 'prepare the ground' for serendipity as Michael suggest. But I do wonder, and have my doubts, about how much influence the preparations can have. I think if serendipity happens, then interaction and engagement often follow so long as the professor is responsive, and this can and will occur even if the student participation has been otherwise lacklustre prior to the serendipitous events that triggers a positive switch. On the other hand, I've taught classes in which I've worked extremely hard to promote students interaction and engagement (I'm really looking forward to using your playing card game, btw, which I learned of in one of your previous posts!), but which have not really managed to generate much beyond routine going through the motions participation. Sometimes groups just don't seem to get much of a charge out of each other and I've found that on the whole they rather prefer to sit and listen rather than interact and that there's not much (I) can do about it. So, in the end, I am, like you, still perplexed about what conditions actually facilitate the kind of interaction you describe in the post, and how much we as teachers can do to promote such interaction.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful reply Kevin! I agree about the role of serendipity. However, I did have a comparison class this semester. A more standard political philosophy class in which quite a few of the students already knew each other and I think the fact that that class already had a built in sense of community was key in those class discussions being more engaging from the beginning. So I do think that the sense of community is an important component that we can have some effect on by consciously trying to foster it early in the term. But, of course, there is an element of serendipity to that too involving the personalities and interests of the students you happen to have that term.


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