September 30th, 2008

The Power of Putting the Students at the Center of Learning

By:

As an instructor at a career-focused university, I thought I had experienced it all: great classes and bad classes, classes that ran smoothly and those that required firm management, classes that were a breeze and those that challenged my patience. Despite these experiences, I was unprepared for what became my best class, the one that most changed my outlook on teaching.

After a medical leave, I returned three weeks into the new term to an introductory career-preparation course for 37 equine students. In passing the reins to me, the covering instructor said, “I don’t envy you.” Being raised in an urban area, I had hardly ever seen a horse, never mind knowing anything about the industry. In preparation, I tried to read everything I could find about the equine industry. But I knew that despite my best efforts, I would only be faking what I knew. What was I going to do? After thoughtful contemplation I realized that if I truly wanted to make the class work, I should turn my students into teachers. Instead of trying to relate to them, I decided to make them relate to me.

I came to the first class and began to ramble off names like Vygotsky, Dewey, Piaget, and other educational theorists as quickly as I could, using as many polysyllabic words as possible. As soon as I was sure I had every student confused, I stopped and asked them how they felt. They offered words such as lost, confused, angry, and overwhelmed. “Well,” I said, “that works both ways. Over the next seven weeks, I want you to take what you know about the equine industry, expand it, and then teach it to me. I want to know about your industry but you will have to teach me using plain language and terms I can understand.”

As a symbolic move, I took out a copy of the syllabus and ripped it up. “This class will not be bound by a defined agenda,” I told them. “All the assignments you will design, all the exams you will write, and you will grade yourselves.” Student response was mixed. Some were happy; they thought I’d made the course easy. Some doubted my sincerity. We then discussed the first project. I told the class their assignment was to instruct me about what they wanted to do in their field. They asked me: “How many pages does it have to be?” “Do we need to present it to the class?” “What specifically do you want to know?” I answered each question by simply saying these were their decisions to make.

That made the students angry and frustrated. They continued to grill me with questions, to which I replied, “You can do whatever you want, draw a picture, do a presentation, build a website, write a paper, I don’t care. What I do care about is that you teach me what you have learned in your research.” Two students asked if they could do a joint project because they wanted to do the same thing. I said that would be fine. They then asked if I would visit them at the horse facility, which was about a half hour away. I told them I would. That Friday at 7:45 a.m. I found myself face to face with a horse for the first time in my life. The students described how they were taking the horse for a riding lesson and why this was important. Their faces were glowing and their excitement contagious as they began to show me the horse’s jumping skills.

The next class buzzed with kinetic energy. One student said, “You actually came to the barn. No instructors from the downtown campus have ever come to the barn.” The next Friday I made a second visit, and for several hours the students showed and explained the different styles of riding. Other students gave me business plans for facilities they wished to own, others showed me videotapes of their competitions and explained the finer point of dressage.

Horse trainers lunge a horse in order to help the horse loosened up and to prepare for competition. I used this analogy for the students’ comprehensive project. Explaining to the class that in their professional careers the cover letter was the ticket into the competition and the resume was the competition itself, we began to examine the most difficult class material. We took each step slowly and methodically. Students were concerned about the high level of detail involved in the assignment. I told them, “If you lunged a horse and it made a mistake, would you kill it?” They laughed and agreed that reasoning was illogical. “Then why would I kill you? Send me your drafts, I will grade them and give them back to you. In my teaching career I always had given classes this option, but in the past at most one or two students took me up on the offer. In this class 31 of the 37 students (83 percent) submitted drafts for review. Never before had I given perfect scores on final projects; in this class I gave six.

At the last class, I was very emotional. I did not know what to say or do. Six of the students approached me at the beginning of class and asked me to become the faculty adviser for the equine club. I had protested initially, saying I was not qualified to hold such a position. “Professor Johnson” one student said, “We taught you all you need to know.”