April 30th, 2008

Finding the Space between Freedom and Control


In the March issue of The Teaching Professor I wrote an article exploring teacher control in the classroom. I described my attempts to figure out how much control is enough — enough to show the seriousness of learning and my commitment to creating a climate conducive to it, but not so much that rigid rules dampen the motivation to learn. A number of readers responded. Here’s a couple of their comments along with an interesting quote I discovered shortly after I wrote the article.

Jason Fuller, who teaches beginning biology majors at Montgomery College in Maryland, wrote, “I tend to not assert much control in the classroom; instead I encourage students to interact and question. In lab I give students enough instruction so that they are familiar with the equipment we’re using and with any safety issues, then set them loose to conduct their experiments. In this way I require them to come prepared, and give them the room to make mistakes (and hopefully learn from them). I’ve noticed that some instructors have a tendency to assert quite a bit of control, particularly in lab. In these cases, I’ve observed that the students do not read material before lab and are much more likely to not understand what they were doing. Since everything that happens in the lab is scripted by the instructor, the students are more disengaged from the learning process.

I do believe that there is an effective middle ground between no structure and rigid structure, particularly for today’s students.”

My colleague Mitch Zimmer, who teaches and directs the business degree program on the Penn State campus where I used to teach, shared these thoughts. “I’m probably in the rigid control category. I’m a firm believer that the faculty is in charge. For me that means having a seating chart so I can memorize their names, not allowing students to sit in the back rows in classes when the room is bigger than the enrollment, taking exception to a cell phone so much as ringing (generally, answering it for the first student fixes the problem for all), etc. We cover the topics in the syllabus (although not always on the planned week), and their attendance and participation is required. I expect them to pay attention when I or someone else is speaking. Still my favorite moments are when I ‘lose control’ and the discussion, on topics from minimum wage to subprime loans to Enron, goes from carefully moderated to an open free-for-all complete with raised voices and passionate arguments. Some day I’ll figure out how this balance of control actually works.”

I think I hear in both these comments some sense that there might be a middle ground or some sort of give and take between controlling and letting go. And that’s the point elaborated by someone in a multiple-author article that appeared in Pedagogy 8, (1), 185. “While purely democratic models might be impractical and elitist models inadvisable, my best teaching comes as a result of identifying, developing, and nurturing the productive areas between, on the one hand, my goals, my authority, and my expectations, and on the other, the goals, authority, and expectations of my students.” This writer concludes by observing that “navigating these extremes to claim productive spaces in between is no easy task, as the boundaries shift between and among subjects, classes, and individual students.” (p. 185)

Once again we are confronted by the complexity that grows out of the teaching-learning nexus. Not only must teachers find a nebulous place between control and the absence of it, but that place is not a fixed point but a moving goal/target.