22 January 2011

Flexibility, relevance and the desire to be taken seriously

Come with me as I work through some ideas about the relationship between student engagement and flexibility in teaching and learning. Reading Hugh Mackay’s What makes us tick? has helped me to give shape to some ideas which accord with a constructivist approach to learning.
What makes us tick? contains a chapter entitled ‘The Desire to Be Taken Seriously’ which resonated with me as both a teacher and as a student. On page 3, Mackay writes, “We all want our voices to be heard as authentic, legitimate and worthy of attention. We can’t bear to be overlooked, dismissed or belittled. … When we know we are being taken seriously we can relax into that assurance.”

Whilst completing my Masters from 2004-07, I found myself in the position of a student for the first time in fifteen years. Obviously it was a great experience in terms of what I learnt, but it was also insightful to be in the student role again. What I particularly want to comment on in light of my reading of Mackay’s book, was how the best teaching and learning occurred in classes where I and other students were taken seriously. In these classes I felt that all of the students’ voices were considered ‘authentic, legitimate and worthy of attention’.

One of the most interesting aspects of the classes was the lecturer’s flexibility in setting essay questions. What this meant was that the lecturer waited to see what issues were generated by the students’ input before constructing the assessment. And every lecturer allowed students to disregard the given questions and set their own question, increasing the relevance of the learning. Thus, on many occasions, my own research led me to a particular area of interest, and the lecturer(s) took me seriously enough to allow me to write about this. I was constructing my own knowledge about the texts and issues which I encountered and because of this, not only was I more passionate and diligent about each topic, the learning has remained with me to this day.

This experience has in turn shaped my teaching. We don’t always have the freedom to allow students to develop their own question and respond (e.g., in HSC exams, where questions are well and truly set), thus we should make more of effort to provide this opportunity elsewhere – in every other aspect of learning if possible. One of the reasons why I support the Extension 2 English Course was because it offers the student a way of learning so similar to my positive post-grad experience. This ties in with Daniel Pink’s theory in Drive (see earlier posts) as autonomy, mastery and purpose are inherent in constructing one’s own learning.

One way of thinking posits that good teaching is about setting an assessment task first and then tailoring most of the teaching towards students meeting the outcomes which will be assessed. It’s not my contention that this thinking is incorrect. Students should know (as I did when I completed my Masters) what type of task will be expected of them at the end of the course. I am arguing that we need to be flexible enough with the content/subject matter of the task to take into account student interest throughout the course. By offering a variety of questions, or allowing students to set their own agenda, or some other flexible approach in meeting the outcomes, teachers are increasing the relevance of the learning and demonstrating to students that their voices are ‘authentic, legitimate and worthy of attention’.

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