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Opening the Classroom: Ownership and Engagement

 Published on March 20, 2018 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Sarah Honeychurch and Chris Friend /  “opening up.........” by Stephen; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  0

It was time to open up the classroom. I was tired of doing class on my own. Tired of designing lesson plans that minutely mapped every second of my time together with the students. Tired of performing to the point of exhaustion, standing at the center of class to maintain students’ attention to what I was passionate about. It was time for students to take ownership of class.

But how to do it? Fortunately, at the time things needed to change, I learned about Chris Friend’s model for a learner-centered classroom, which roughly consists of the following components:

  1. Based on the class readings, prepare a set of questions you want the students to discuss
  2. Put those questions in a Google Doc, and display that Google Doc to the classroom
  3. Shut up, let students talk while writing notes and comments in the Google Doc (students can also type their own remarks in the Google Doc…a great way to engage students that don’t like to talk but love to type)

Friend’s suggestions struck me as both elegant and effective: here was a model that put the responsibility for what happens in class with the students, while decentering the authority of the teacher. At the same time, that teacher was still actively present: the Google Doc allowed, it seemed to me, for a range of options to guide the classroom: summarizing what students say helps the class focus; asking provocative questions in type rather than orally allows students to ponder the question without feeling forced to answer it immediately; and scrolling up and down the document allows the instructor to refer to things that were said previously.

In implementing Friend’s model, I adapted it in several ways. One thing I had liked in Fall was asking students to post online responses and questions about the readings. This ensured that they did those readings and came to class prepared to talk about them. So why not, I thought, generate the core questions for each session from those online readings, instead of composing them myself? This would show students what a “good” question about the material looks like. For the purposes of my religion courses, good questions were often questions about the context or meaning of primary sources, e.g. “why does this Buddhist sutra present women as sexual objects only?” or “how does the Dalai Lama’s view of Buddhism relate to the Buddhism of the early Pali sutras?” After showing the class the questions I selected, I would invite the author of a question I selected to talk a little about their ideas. This would get the discussion started, after which I would ideally type a lot and talk very little.

Another change I implemented was assigning students to teach sessions of class. Their duties included reading the responses of their peers, selecting questions for the class to discuss, and inviting their fellow students to talk about the questions they asked. These “teachers” would also be responsible to distill the essence of each session into three terms or quotations that the whole class would study for the midterm and final exam.

Finally, part of my syllabus was blank. If students are to determine what happens in the classroom, it is essential to allow them some measure in deciding what materials they will use in that classroom. The role of the instructor here is as an expert advisor. In my Buddhism class I had the first half of the semester filled in with readings, because I wanted students to have a basic knowledge of core Buddhist concepts before delving deeper into other aspects of the tradition. Students chose what we did during the second half of the semester by voting on a range of themes (“Buddhism, War, and Peace;” “Buddhism and Gender;” “Buddhism and Nature;”…). Once the class had voted on what they wanted to explore, I filled in those themes with readings I thought would be helpful (presented in the theme section of that course’s syllabus).

The model worked very well. Initially, I struggled with not speaking. Being accustomed to holding forth about various topics as I am sure many of us who teach are, I found myself in the unfamiliar situation of having to hold everything back. It made me so uneasy I had to resort to my meditative practice to keep from hyperventilating. But it did work: after three weeks, students stopped glancing at me before talking, and started to look each other in the eye. In my Buddhism class, nearly all of my students talked during every single session. While talking, they drew both upon their classmates comments, which they saw summarized in the Google Doc I was editing, and their own understanding of the readings, often respectfully correcting each other’s factual misunderstandings by–in the best case–referring to the readings. I say “respectfully” because due to the frequency of student interactions, a social contract had grown.

But what about tests and examinations? As I said, students would generate three terms or quotations to “summarize” the content of every class. They would also write up explanations of why these terms and quotations were important, and all this information would go onto an online class wiki which would then be the study resource for the examinations. The students themselves selected the format of the examinations, and opted for a multiple choice exam for both midterm and final.

Students’ selection of the test format disappointed me: why choose a multiple choice test when our class discussions were clearly oriented towards a more open format of evaluations (say an essay question)? When I brought this up in class, students’ answer was even more disappointing: because multiple choice tests “are easy.” It was an important moment of reflection and sobriety for me: here I was, thinking I had created a classroom that hallowed the open exchange of knowledge, and yet the majority of my students were primarily thinking about how to get an A.

This was my fault. I had not gone far enough. While I had created a more open classroom, I had kept conventional examinations firmly in place. Even though students could choose the way they were evaluated, I nevertheless remained the referee, the one to please, the one who approved or disapproved of how students understood the material and interacted with each other in the class. The limits of this attitude were made clear to me by an insightful comment on one of my teaching evaluations, where one student discreetly noted that quiet students are not necessarily absent in class, implying that my participation grades depended on volume (who speaks the most) more than content.

How could I deconstruct my authority in class even further? My thinking started with the anonymous student evaluation comment on grading participation, an element of the evaluation process that I’d always struggled with. How do you measure what students do in class? I think many of us would agree that a student who is active, friendly, and caring deserves a good participation grade, and one who does not show up or interact at all should probably get a bad participation grade. But what do you do with those in between? Also, how do you grade students who are great and supportive in group work, but shy to speak in front of the whole class?

Ryan Cordell suggests part of the solution: he proposes that students write papers arguing for a certain participation grade. This both familiarizes students with an evidence-based structure they will need for research papers, and it makes them active learners: They themselves reflect first on their presence in class, and what they could do to improve it. But this model could be expanded. As Starr Sackstein suggests, a model where students determine their full grade is not only possible; it can work very well. But for it to work, you also need very clear guidelines as to what counts as good work and what does not. Students can develop these guidelines themselves or in collaboration.

I’m designing a class where the first meeting is a look at the funkily formatted syllabus. The syllabus needs to be visually attractive and accessible because students need to understand from the start that this class might be very different from other classes they have taken. Then, ideally still during that first session, students do a write-up with at least one learning goal for the semester and three different tasks that will help them achieve that goal. Students then take this write-up to a meeting with me, and together we look at the syllabus and speculate out how they will engage with the readings. Someone wants to do an art performance piece on Buddhist nuns? Fine, they will focus on portrayal of gender in the readings, and generate a performance for the last day of class from there. Someone wants to learn what Buddhist meditation is? Great, this person will comment on descriptions of meditation practices in the texts we read, and meditate daily, making entries in her diary along the way. At regular times during the semester, I’d have students write short, formative papers grading themselves on their participation, progress on the final project, and all other components that they themselves decided would be useful. For this paper, students draw upon collectively constructed grading rubrics to suggest what grade would be proper for them. I then read these papers, make notes on them, and keep copies until the end of the quarter, when they form the basis for a conversation between me and the student about what grade they should get.

This model would not be a radical break from the one I tried last Spring. Instead, this task-based class would be entirely compatible with the open-ended “Google Doc” approach, possibly making it better. If students have a vested interest in exploring certain aspects of texts, class discussion could become even more varied, a kind of forum for students invested in different parts of the material. More than a class, it would be a meeting of minds. From what I’ve read, such an individualized model would also greatly benefit students with learning disabilities.

I sketch this utopian class, and my inner critic wonders what to do with unmotivated students, those who are only in your class because it fills a requirement, those who take your class because they figure it’s an easy A. This inner critic reminds me of the smart, stimulating, and engaging students who chose multiple choice tests to beat the class system, the opposite attitude of the one I was attempting to foster. And finally, the inner critic forces me to honestly admit that while the model I’ve outlined above worked marvelously in my Buddhism class, it was somewhat less successful in other classes where I’ve adopted it for reasons that I am still unclear about (was it because these classes were scheduled in the afternoon? Because there were less students in these classes? Were students more unmotivated because of the topics of these classes?)

One solution to these problems of student engagement would be to stress during the very first meeting the differences between this format and a “classical” academic class, and how this model might suit some better than others. Though students would co-author the terms of our engagement with each other, as an instructor I’d have to tell them that this very act of collaborating in shaping the class might make the classroom a very strange space. But strange spaces are where magic happens, where we confront our own limitations and the possibilities that lie beyond those limitations. The open classroom I have described for you here is such a beyond, where the classroom is no longer “my” space, but a communal space where teaching happens in ways I cannot imagine. I walk into that space without an idea of what will go down, with a beginner’s mind open to appreciate the wealth of insights my students offer about things I thought I knew. It is much better than walking in with a 50-minute powerpoint presentation. But it’s obviously not really about me. When I was the age of my students, all I wanted was a taste of the unknown. The open classroom offers that, offers the adventure of intellectual and personal discovery.

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