March 25th, 2015

Teachers, Students and the Classroom Tango


“From the way students act at the beginning of a class we can tell a great deal about the profs who taught them previously.” It’s an insight offered by David Johnson and Roger Johnson, the well-known cooperative learning researchers and advocates.

How do students act at the beginning of a course? It does depend on the students and the course, but in general I would not say they are bursting with enthusiasm, happy to be in class, and excited about the learning adventure that awaits them. If it’s a big university, a commuter campus, or a required course, they tend to be quiet. They don’t know each other and don’t seem all that inclined to make connections. To me it often felt like a kind of laid-back-hoping-for-the-best-but-rather-expecting-the-worst attitude.

I wonder if the Johnsons’ quote doesn’t imply too much professorial responsibility. I have passed out the syllabus, sat silently for 10 minutes while the students read it and then said I’d answer whatever questions they had about the course, only to find out that nobody had any questions. This kind of student behavior makes a teacher feel compelled to respond and fill the void. After all, there are things about the course students need to know up front. So, if they don’t ask and we aren’t sure that they’ll read, we tell them. The problem is that we tend to explain in such exquisite detail that they’ve learned there’s no longer any need to ask. The actions of students influence teacher responses. It doesn’t just work in the teacher-to-student direction.

Professor and student behaviors feed off of each other, often in these counterproductive loops. It isn’t just that some (perhaps many) profs don’t invite students to speak all that often, don’t know much about any student individually, don’t seem all that excited about teaching their courses, and appear to believe that rules are the key to productive learning environments. It’s also that students have made it clear to their profs that they’d rather not be called on, want their profs to just tell them what they need to do, arrive to class convinced they aren’t interested in the course content, and believe that because they’ve paid for this educational “product”, it’s theirs to use however they see fit.

However, it’s just as possible for these behavior loops to become productive connections where what the professor does changes student responses and where student behaviors encourage the prof to take more constructive actions. Here the quote’s focus on the professor is appropriate. Teachers can change how students respond easier than students can change teachers. Professors can provide leadership and in the teacher-student relationship, they have more power, even though the distribution of power in those relationships is more fluid than fixed.

All this reminded me of a lovely metaphor proposed by Deb Bickford who compares teacher-student behaviors to the interactions that occur between dance partners. She says it’s “a dance in which we may lead in the beginning but then we let our partners provide movement and energy and direction.” Faculty are better positioned to make those first moves—to get the dance started. Students will follow, but as the dance gains momentum who’s leading and who’s following becomes much less obvious. The partners work together. They provide support and showcase each other’s moves as the dance unfolds.

From the television show “Dancing with the Stars,” we’ve seen what a good dance partner can do for athletes, actors, and other notables who aren’t professional dancers. We’ve also heard how much practice that takes. Every class is a different partner and the content dance we are trying to teach students is often complicated. Moreover, they are being taught different dances simultaneously, most of them requiring unique moves. But there’s a fundamental principle at work here, which I suspect we all know but can forget or take for granted. “It takes two to tango.” Education locks professors and students into mutually influencing relationships that can make learning a thing of beauty and a joy forever, or a clumsy dance better forgotten than remembered.

Johnson, D. W. and Johnson R. T., (2000). Constructive controversy: The educative power of intellectual conflict. Change, January/February, p. 37

Bickford, D. J., (1997). Reflection on artful teaching. Journal of Management Education, 21 (4), p. 467.

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  • Peter Adeyemi

    I am Peter a Ph.D (Psychology of Education) student working on "Instructional Vitality" of teachers as propounded by Prof. Weimer. I had the privilege of attending a workshop at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh during which her classic book "Inspired College Teaching" was discussed at Center for Teaching excellence of the institution in 2010. That book is the inspiration and a major resource for my doctoral dissertation presently. The full topic is: "Cognitive styles, mnemonic strategies and emotional maturity as predictors of instructional vitality of secondary school teachers in Southwestern Nigeria." I will be glad to get in touch with Prof. Weimer through e-mail if possible for further enlightenment on the topic.