Friday, October 3, 2014

Building Student/Teacher Collaboration

The first definition for collaboration that appeared when I clicked on Google was "to work with another person or group in order to achieve something". In the case of student/teacher collaboration, that "something" worth achieving is substantive, meaningful learning. The ideal collaboration between students and me would mean we share the same goals. Or our goals should overlap enough that we know that whatever we are doing is related to both our objectives. 

As the teacher, I am obligated  to meet certain learning objectives (read about my metaphor for teaching). I have to help students see the relevance of those objectives and particular lessons. I'm not saying students don't need to bring a sense of purpose to our classes. They do! Often, however, those purposes are quite general, based on limited experience with college, and quite different than what we as professors have. 

Clarifying how the learning objectives I'm assigned to teach may be important to the students' lives, academic or otherwise remains largely my responsibility. That relevance may not be readily apparent to students. This is particularly true of students, first-year and first-generation college students, who aren't familiar enough with the material nor the skills we teach to know how the assigned objectives are linked to their own goals and majors, which are often hazy and undecided for first-year students. 

The same holds true for the way we work together, that is, our different expectations about the roles students and teachers play in teaching and learning. 

I'm basically rehearsing the big point of Rebecca Cox's book The College Fear Factor. Cox uses anecdotes and research to show that students and professors expectations about learning do not match. At all. Many students expect professors to be a font of knowledge who will fill their brains with data, concepts, and information.  This makes the students primary job one of a recorder, someone waiting to be imprinted with knowledge, as in, "What's the right answer?" 

Professors, the ones I respect and do my best to emulate, certainly value the type of conceptual knowledge students expect to acquire. But we are also deeply invested in procedural knowledge. We'd like to be "guides-on-the-side" who facilitate students through the process of evaluating, manipulating, and applying that conceptual knowledge. This means we see ourselves not as sentient encyclopedias full of information. instead, we see ourselves as coaches. 

That's the distinction. Students may see professors as walking Wikipedias, brimming with discreet unit of knowledge, like cash, that can be exchanged and withdrawn as if from an ATM. We see ourselves as cognitive coaches, mentors who facilitate students' skill in addressing questions and issues from our particular disciplinary lenses. This disconnect between expectations frustrates collaboration. Crossed wires short circuit working together. Cox, in College Fear Factor, argues convincingly teachers must help students see and bridge that often jarring (shocking?) gap. This  especially applies to those of us who teach incoming first-year students, students adjusting to new culture. 

This notion of relevance isn't shared in one lecture or a discrete lesson. I can't simply "tell" students the relevance or explain significance of role-stress. It isn't a singular event. When I'm at my best, I design activities that iterate the relevance of what we are doing - without me relying on a single pronouncement or directive, hallmarks of the "empty vessel" concept of education. It's on me to facilitate, in multiple ways,  students' comprehension of the gap between what they expect about learning and what the professoriate expects. Those activities, hopefully, demonstrate the relevance, make the significance of what we are doing visible in ways that a handout or glib statement ("This isn't high school!") cannot express. 

So (as I write my way to knowing my point), the kind of collaboration I aim for rests on the shared understanding of two building blocks: the relevance of the learning objectives and the roles each of has to play make that happen. Effective eachers create the conditions for students to more easily see these foundations for collaboration. It's on teachers to make those gaps visible, to make transparent the value of the learning goals and the methods we use to get meet those objectives. In many ways, my job has just as much to do with acculturation as it does with my particular content/skill area. And I'm fine with that. It's what I signed up to do.