Thursday, May 13, 2010

Experience, the best teacher

I spent the day with a few dozen colleagues at a workshop on service learning, and we found ourselves having to confront some difficult questions about our teaching and about our students' learning. From the evidence of the discussion, there are three basic questions that arise when we contemplate including service learning or experiential learning in our classes for the first time.

First we ask: Can I do this? Do I, the instructor, have the wherewithal to do this new thing? Usually we do not doubt our innate capacity to innovate or lead; we may, however, doubt that needed resources will be forthcoming, or feel that we lack models to follow. In other words, we believe that we could do it if we had a guide, or if we had access to needed moneys or personnel. It's external support we lack, not internal ability.

Then we ask: What would we do? What organizations in my community could I plug into? What opportunities exist that I would like to guide the students towards? Again, few of us professors would argue that the organizations and opportunities don't exist or are inaccessible. We may not know all about them, but we know that just a little research (something we're quite good at) would turn them up. We may even, if we think about it, realize that those organizations have people in them who are knowledgeable about and capable of coordinating volunteers and projects -- the kinds of things we'd be approaching them about.

It's the third question where we shift our thinking, often without realizing it. Can my students do this? While it would never occur to most of us to doubt our ability to create such a class and lead our students through it, we're often quite ready to believe that our students are incapable of navigating the path we map out for them. We may question their readiness for independent work, for critical self-reflection, for project-based learning, for collaboration, for responsibility, for self-assessment, for power, for the chance to determine the success or failure of the class, for a say. In the end, I believe this is the reason most professors who decide not to pursue service learning give: My students couldn't handle that.

And yet, as our facilitator demonstrated most forcefully today, these pedagogical methods challenge almost everything tradition tells us about what teaching is and what learning is. If we set them aside because of assumptions -- or even because of our personal experience -- about what students are capable of based on those traditional frameworks, we are letting conventional wisdom dictate to us at the very point where we are convinced (in the other two questions) of the viability of this path.

I know that I teach an exceptional group of students. But even in that rarified circle, I hear distressingly definitive statements being made about what they cannot do. I can only say "amen" to the facilitator's words today: If we are sure they can't do it, then it's a sure thing that they won't.

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