Teacherless Discussion

Teacherless Discussion

Mapping the teacherless discussion.

Something the Philosophy 12 group experimented with in last year’s cohort was the idea of holding teacherless discussions. As research and work in my own graduate studies took me further into notions of citizenship education and a confrontation with contemporary political apathy, I began to look at the structure of classroom activities as a means of engaging student and peer ownership over the learning process.

I was inspired initially to take this course of action by the writing of Paulo Freire, who highlighted the need for emancipatory education to reconcile the student-teacher contradiction. “The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics,” he writes, “the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Perhaps more simply put, as I explained to the philosophy class today, ‘school’ should be less something that happens to students than something they make happen for themselves. And while teachers may approach their classroom activities with the best of intentions in this regard, there is still ultimately a group’s propensity to rely on a designated instructor / leader / teacher to move things along, creating a broadly perceived apathy that allows a minority to dictate – often without opposition – the course of the community.

So I started sometime last year deliberately ‘going dark’ for some of our classroom discussions, and found the results of the experiment to be immediately palpable, if not specifically nameable. Something which also struck me was the shift in participation, posture and presences making their way into discussions in which I re-inserted myself, as students reverted back to offering their responses more directly to me than the group, seemed to seek my approval or appraisal of their thoughts, and otherwise seemed to lose sight of their community of peers.

This morning I sought to begin our teacherless discussion efforts earlier in the semester with a dissection of the New York Times Opinionator Blog essay “Logic and Neutrality.”

The map above shows the course of the conversation as it moved about our classroom. Numbers show the order of speakers, with the two volunteer moderators (Jeff and Cassidy) noted in red. Dashed lines show spontaneous interjections, and numbers otherwise note the order of speakers as neatly as I could manage.

In my own notes I also highlighted several contributions which furthered the discussion, as well as a few points where things seemed to stall, and asked the class to create their own lists of these points in the conversation.

A few of those helpful contributions included:

  • Asking guiding questions to outline course of discussion in progress,
  • Attempting to define different vocabulary and concepts being used,
  • Highlighting quotes from the article at hand,
  • Incorporating examples from popular culture or common experience,
  • A willingness to pose what may sound like a ‘silly’ question, or hypothesis, and
  • Synthesizing board notes or past points and challenging the momentum of the discussion.

A few places where the class’ momentum faltered:

  • Getting bogged down in controversial or opinion-based hypotheticals (in this case the question of the morality of murder that was ended deftly by someone’s suggestion that “we move off murder”),
  • Moments where a more common understanding of discussion aims and/or vocabulary would have created more clarity around topics,
  • Encountering quiet moments of thought following tough questions or attempts to synthesize discussion.

As an initial effort in the teacherless discussion this semester, the Philosophy 12 group demonstrated many characteristics of successful group discourse, and will continue to build on these strengths as the class moves on into more individual and collective inquiry.

On Teaching and Learning

Diagrams by David Warlick

Diagrams by David Warlick

A few of us from the #Tiegrad group met up on Sunday morning to talk about all sorts of things: project updates, questions, and frustrations, the nature of personalized learning and education in the ‘open,’ and the unique moment each of us finds ourselves in: presently at the intersection between teacher and learner. Even Valerie Irvine, formally our leader in this process, is working out just what instruction might mean or entail in this open, personalized context.

The particular community of practice we have assembled in our aggregated blog posts, Twitter hashtag, and Blue Jeans video conferences is facilitating just the sort of learning experience around which many of our learning project inquiries revolve. The course ‘content’ is our own personally relevant and autonomous field research and reflection, all of which is aggregated in a supportive community of public inquiry.

But it is through the reflection on the process of learning itself that we may each have the most to learn as we seek to discover ways to provide this same type of empowering education in our own classrooms, and turn our own theories into practice.

Epistemology Groups

EdCamp style discussion groups in #Philosophy12

For me, the skills attending to student “ownership” of learning are essential elements in the ongoing creation and maintenance of a democratic society. A classroom in which students rely on a teacher to singularly construct the learning environment, content matter, manner of delivery, and means of assessment is providing an education in citizenship that instills a democratic helplessness.

In the wake of the unfolding Senate scandal playing out in the midst of Stephen Harper’s majority mandate, I asked my Philosophy 12 class what they thought about any of it: Mike Duffy’s explosive Senate addresses, the Prime Minister’s evolving take on the story’s finer points, or the state of the country in general.

“What’s it like to be young people in Canada today?”

To which a few offered brief responses before the room settled on the consensus that politics and democracy were concerns that would involve them ‘later.’ For the time being, each remain a vague and opaque streak of ‘adult business.’

I don’t think I’m alone in finding the sentiment troubling. But I am grateful to Gert Biesta, who explores the origins of this perspective in his paper, “Understanding Young People’s Citizenship Learning in Everyday Life: The Role of Contexts, Relationships and Dispositions,” where he explains that “Young people learn from the opportunities for action, participation and reflection that are afforded by the practices and communities in their everyday lives.”

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

Discussable Object notes in #Philosophy12

And so despite being taught about government, our legal system, and the history of our inherited democracy, there is an implicit message in the context of our educational institutions that is presenting an exclusive version of democracy, rather than an inclusive and participatory incarnation “since It fails to recognize that young people always already participate in social life and that their lives are always already implicated in the wider social, economic, cultural and political order (see Smith et al, 2005; Faulks, 2006).”

Biesta writes that:

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

It is within this view and experience of the world that effective citizenship education must situate itself in the lives of young people if it seeks to be successful. Here, I am reminded of Paulo Freire:

“…the program content of the problem-posing method – dialogical par excellence – is constituted and organized by the students’ view of the world, where their own generative themes are found. The content thus constantly expands and renews itself. The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem.”

But this is not the way it has been.

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

Discussable Object Creation.

Students have been taught what is required that they know before graduation or articulation, and have performed the required tasks to demonstrate such knowledge. The range of choices and human interactions has been limited to a dynamic between teacher and students as separate, but identical relationships, and between students mostly as a counterculture within the institution. Nowhere emphasized is the importance of collaborative decision making, the negotiation of disagreement, or the skills required to bring about either.

Contemplating an epidemic of democratic apathy in the western world, and as our municipal, federal and world leaders growing ever more brazen in continued experiments of unchecked abuses of power, I think about the necessity of educating students to engage in educational discourse which:

“is based on finding agreement, welcoming different points of view, identifying the common good in the myriad of competing self-interests, searching for synthesis and consensus, promoting solidarity, and ultimately improving community life (Schugurensky).”

In his essay, “Transformative Learning and Transformative Politics,” Daniel Schugurensky describes a process of learning which “requires the presence of different viewpoints (especially those that challenge prevailing norms) and must allow (even encourage) the expression of dissent.” He quotes Henry Giroux (2001), who writes:

“The struggle over politics and democracy is inextricably linked to creating public spheres where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities, and knowledge they need not only to actually perform as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up.”

This type of experiential learning may help to create what Edmund O’Sullivan (1999:252) called “A new civic culture in which a sense of community and place are the basic empowering infrastructures for more extended involvement in wider communities of participation.”

It could even be seen to encompass the premise Bonnie Stewart recognizes as the potential for open online courses to help create such “new civic cultures”:

“The capacity for networked interaction may itself be subject to network effects and, therefore, scale and encourage a digital literacies ethos of distributed expertise, increased peer-to-peer participation, collaboration, and knowledge generation.”

But it is an idea that goes back to John Dewey as part of the essential elements in democratic social construction:

“This transmission occurs by means of communication of habits of doing, thinking, and feeling from the older to the younger. Without this communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, opinions, from those members of society who are passing out of the group life to those who are coming into it, social life could not survive.”

It is something I think the #Tiegrad folks have particular insight into at this moment, perhaps, as we find ourselves both teachers and students reflecting on our experiences as each.

If we are to, as Freire compels us, to “reconcile the teacher-student contradiction,” we are entering educative waters indeed.