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Responsive Teaching

 Published on April 21, 2016 /  Written by and /  “Inflexible” by Pulpolux !!!; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  2

You can also view a full transcript of this episode.

Let’s talk about our expectations for students and what we think they are—and should be—capable of. There’s been a good deal of chatter online recently (see posts from Sean Michael Morris and Aimée Morrison, for instance) about the musings of a one Ron Srigley, who seems to make it a point at every turn to complain to the world about how stupid he thinks his students are. Which is odd, because shouldn’t he, a professor confident in his intelligence, consider that a source of job security and therefore a good thing? But I digress.

The trouble is that Srigley’s complaints are based on the premise that knowledge is held by the few, to be distributed to the masses fortunate enough to take in that knowledge from their teachers. Students are empty vessels, the thinking goes, awaiting pearls of wisdom to be graciously handed down from above. But I can say, as one who has spent a good deal of time in classrooms, both as a student and a teacher, I’ve never met a teacher who knew more than a room full of students. Just ask the students. They’ll be able to tell you what the teacher doesn’t know. The wealth of knowledge and experience that constitutes every classroom, thanks to what students bring with them, amazes me. All we have to do is listen for it.

In this episode, I chat with Janine DeBaise, who teaches writing and literature at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, New York. Our conversation is a follow-up to an article Janine wrote for Hybrid Pedagogy, as well as an experiment she and I conducted with our students a few semesters ago. That experiment didn’t work so well, and that’s the point: Our teaching should be responsive, adapting to the situation, the students, and the semester, not determined by the textbook. This discussion explores the ways we can make our classes more responsive.

Chris Friend is director of Hybrid Pedagogy.

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2 Responses
  1. Jakob Gowell

    Chris & Janine-

    I just passed the point in your podcast where you mention exchanging papers in class, especially as an opportunity for a kind of engagement that recognizes/differentiates for “introverted students” (thanks for providing the transcript, its searchability made it easy to go back and take a closer look). When you mentioned introversion I wondered about how a book I’m reading, called The End of Average, might be relevant. One of the book’s three principles in challenging what he calls “Averagarianism” is the context principle. Its connection to your conversation is in questioning the value or completeness of ascribing labels like “introverted” to a student. Todd Rose, the book’s author, summarizes the history of trait-based psychology vs. situation-based psychology, then advocates for a synthesis of the two. In an example, he mentions an extensive study of a summer camp that identified two campers in particular as having challenging behaviors associated with aggression. His next move is to point out that a trait-based perspective would erase the following: “One of the boys was aggressive around his peers, but docile around adults. The other boy was only aggressive around adults, but docile around his peers.” As Rose points out, if we designed an intervention around the trait-based perspective, we might not be serving the child to the full extent possible.

    To relate this back to the classroom and introversion, if I want to be as responsive as possible, is it useful to describe students (as introverted, aggressive, smart) in ways that separate the descriptor from the situation? For a student who’s not speaking up in class discussion (a behavior I could label introversion), what other possibilities could I entertain? Are they indifferent to the content? Did they get enough sleep? Are they afraid of what other students might say if they get something wrong? Each of these seems to connect a behavior to a situation in a way that labels obscure. More importantly, I want to ask whether or not that behavior *in that context* serves them, moves them toward their goals. If not, that seems like an opportunity to invite them into collaborative problem-solving a là Ross Greene.

    Jakob Gowell

  2. Hey, Jakob. Thanks for your comment. I agree that it’s usually not helpful for teachers to label students, that labels can be limiting and that context changes things. My college students often self-label, using words like “introvert” and that leads to interesting discussions. (In fact, that’s where my comment came from. Students in their course evaluations have said that having the opportunity to participate in a class discussion via a written paper is helpful because “I’m an introvert.”) I find that many students take the Myers-Briggs in high school, so they arrive with these labels. In our discussions, we do often start questioning the labels — and your comment gives me a great nugget to add to that conversation, so thanks!

    Last fall, I had a student who was very quiet in class and rarely participated. Then one day, we went outside for a nature walk, and he emerged as a leader — striding confidently ahead, pointing things out to us, stopping to identify plants and animals, explaining principles of ecology. I think that’s an example of what you’re talking about. In this new context, we all had to adjust how we saw him.

    I myself am an extrovert in most social situations, and I do find that it’s important for me to remember, when I’m looking out at a class of students, that they aren’t all like me — that they have different ways of responding and participating.

    Last semester, when we talked about how we could make sure everyone in the room had time to participate, we talked about how some of us are uncomfortable with silence and tend to blurt things out, forming our thoughts while we talk, while others in the room don’t like to interrupt, prefer some quiet time to think before they talk, and never talk until they’ve first formed what they want to say. So we talked about strategies to make sure that everyone in the room — both the self-described “blurters” and the “think-before-talking” folks — could participate. That meant that some of us had to learn to be comfortable with a pause after a discussion question.

    I look forward to adding the concept of context to that discussion. I wonder how many of the quiet students in my classroom, for example, are vocal on the soccer field or at a party with peers.

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