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#rhizo15 week 4: Not the disappearing teacher

6 min read

My response this week is really a personal reflection on my journey as a teacher. From being inspired by 'learner-centredness' to heutagogy, it seems that the more I buy into being the 'guide on the side', the more students become dissatisfied with me. As much as I believe that students aren't always the best judge of what's beneficial for them, especially in the long run, I also believe that turning them off my classes isn't exactly the way to help them learn.

For years now, I've been trying to 'facilitate' rather than 'teach', but I don't think I've ever found that elusive balance of promoting learner independence but yet making students feel that they are 'learning' something (which often means that they feel that I am teaching). Worse is that whenever I think I've hit on the right balance, I get discouraged by negative student evaluations. I now dread reading them, which is terrible for someone who genuinely believes feedback is a good thing.

The irony is that I don't think I do what I think is nearly enough to get students to take ownership of their learning. I like to think that if I can just find the right formula (flipped learning, anyone?), I could do this and more with full student buy-in, all within the few months I have with my classes. But I also have a strong suspicion that I don't have the right personality or skillset or that mysterious good-teacher x-factor that could carry this off.

My current stance is that students as a rule are just starting off on this journey of self-directed learning, and pushing them too hard, too fast just won't work for me and/or the students that I teach. I do need to be the sage on the stage still. But part of my job as the sage is to persuade them that they can be sages sometimes too, to others and to themselves.

Inevitably, this persuasion will look like not-teaching to some. I can't prevent this totally, but as part of my development as a teacher, I am trying to find ways of minimising it. So recently, for instance, I've been working on the idea of feedback as a dialogue. We often complain of students not participating in class, in discussion forums, etc., and the reason often cited is that they don't find the topics engaging. But surely they would find their own work engaging? (Some won't, and the selfish teacher in me argues that it's outside of my remit to fix that.)

This semester I was gifted with a tiny class of 9, and I'm experimenting with making the assignments more formative, by pushing them to start thinking and talking about and planning their papers from day 1. Students tend to equate teacher talk with teaching, and I want the teacher talk to be part of a dialogue around their work right from the start.

I've discovered that I need to push a bit harder at the start, so that students don't give into the temptation of working last minute. I can also tell that if I want this to scale, I need to give students more help in being better 'sages' to each other, probably by starting them earlier on developing what Gee calls learners' appreciative systems, by getting them to analyse (and hopefully internalise) what makes a good paper tick. If I teach this again, I will have real student models and real feedback for the class to work with. I've tried this with other classes in the past, but never foregrounding it, which I think made it far too forgettable and disconnected with their own work. Co-constructing a rubric should also come easier if they develop such an appreciative system first.

I guess what I'm saying is that, for now, this teacher is nowhere near fading into the background to pop out only when needed, much less disappear. I haven't given up on heutagogy. But I also recognise how crucial trust is, not just in making feedback work, but also in convincing students that I know what I'm doing and that I truly have their best interests at heart. I will never be that warm and fuzzy and 'natural' teacher because that's just not who I am, so the trust building will take more mindful effort on my part.

This trust building and dialogue making can only really work at scale if we throw certain institutional rules out of the window. For instance, the general rule at another institution of not 'helping' students with their assignments by discussing them in class. Instead we are expected to write copious feedback for final submissions without any expectation of a response. For a teacher, this becomes soul-numbing work. This misguided notion of 'fairness' does nothing for learners and learning, instead reinforcing the idea that teachers are out to get them.

Granted, formative feedback to a class of 40 or more is a lot of work too. Which is why this phobia of 'collusion' needs to go to. Why talk about collaborative learning when students are warned against reading classmates' drafts to give feedback, for fear of 'accidental collusion'? If the plagiarism software highlights matches, are teachers unable to use their superior judgement and know better?

This approach won't be the 'magic' formula for me (I don't think that is one). I just have to take things one semester at a time, as I always have. It's that or give up teaching. We often complain about teacher education being inadequate, but perhaps its true inadequacy is in not preparing teachers to learn on the job in a way that's unstructured, self-directed, connectivist and even rhizomatic. We aren't prepared to deal with and learn from the uncertainties and the setbacks, or disabused (sufficiently) of the notion that there's a 'magic' formula or one right answer. The way we are usually evaluated doesn't take this into account either. It's no wonder that we struggle to prepare our students for the same journey. (How does the 'self-replicating' aspect of rhizomatic learning deal with self-replicating bad ideas?)