September 28th, 2011

The Question of Control in the College Classroom


The August 24 post, What Does Your Syllabus Say About You and Your Course?, in which I asked a series of questions designed to encourage revisiting the syllabus in terms of its role in setting course norms and establishing the tone of the course generated some interesting responses. I am always pleased when a post stimulates reaction, including disagreement. This is how we learn and grow as professionals. It also makes blogs worth reading, in my opinion.

I do have to say, however, that I found some of the assumptions embedded in the responses troubling. I have been thinking about the issues they raised and thought it might be useful for us to continue the conversation.

Several of the responses asserted that teachers need to control students and the processes by and through which they learn because students can’t be trusted. Here’s a comment that illustrates this sentiment: “If the purpose of your syllabus isn’t to state your requirements in such a way that it’s a defense against shenanigans, I would suggest you are a very new prof.” A later comment by this respondent as well as others indicated that the problem has been individual students, not whole classes. But class policies affect everyone. If policies are in place indicating a lack of trust in all students, what kind of impact do they have on students who are trustworthy? What kind of messages do they convey about teacher-student relationships? If the teacher doesn’t trust students, can students be expected to trust the teacher?

In some of the responses there was the sense that students are not mature, responsible learners. That they won’t do what they need to do to learn and they won’t act responsibly in class. How many of your students could be characterized in this way? All? Most? Some? Let’s say that this claim is true of a significant number of students. Does that mean students cannot learn to be more mature and responsible? If they can, then the question is how are they best taught? How likely are they to learn maturity and responsibility in an environment where the teacher makes all the decisions for them?

If students are dependent learners and prone to act irresponsibly with respect to learning, they should not be given more control than they can handle or be asked to make decisions for which they are not prepared. I don’t know any parents of teenagers with newly minted driver’s licenses who given their children keys to the family car Friday night and say, “Have fun. We’ll need the car back Monday morning.” Beginning students are in no position to select course textbooks or say what they might want to learn about a content area. Becoming a mature, responsible learner is a developmental process. The question is when and how does that process start or continue in college?

Behind that question is another one: Do teachers have the responsibility to teach students how to learn or is our only obligation to teach them what they should learn? Actually the two are inextricably linked. When we teach the scientific method or the writing process, we teach the how and what simultaneously. So I suppose it’s more a matter of degree with the decision being whether we let them learn by implicit suggestion or explicit instruction.

The value of comments presenting different perspectives, like those posted on the August 24 entry is that they cause us to revisit what we believe and why. I still believe that teachers have the responsibility to teach students lessons about learning—both lessons about how to learn and lessons about those conditions we know to be conducive to learning. I believe those lessons are best taught not by seeking control over students and their learning environments but by involving them in decisions and by providing guidance and feedback that will improve their decision-making.