December 10, 2014
What is the proper relationship between faculty members and their students? Several models prevail. There is the teacher as content transmitter, embodied most obviously in the teacher as lecturer who delivers content or ideas. There is the teacher as interrogator, the Socratic questioner personified most vividly by John Houseman in The Paper Chase. By posing questions, the instructor seeks to elicit information, stimulate critical thinking, and subject ideas to rigorous scrutiny and analysis.
Then there is the teacher as discussion leader. For many humanists, this is teaching’s Platonic ideal, epitomized by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society: The seminar leader, who directs a conversation, poses questions, and draws students out.
For all their obvious differences, these models share certain commonalities. All are teacher centered. The class revolves around the instructors’ agenda, ideas, and presence. To a greater or lesser extent, these approaches rest on a faculty-student hierarchy.
In an effort to decenter the classroom, a new model has emerged as an alternative: the teacher as facilitator or coach or guide on the side. This approach assumes that students bring competence, curiosity, knowledge, experience and resourcefulness to their studies, and benefit from opportunities to engage in active learning: guided inquiry, discovery learning, role playing, and problem solving. The faculty member’s role, then, is to provide scaffolding, opportunities for practice, and engaged feedback.
There is yet another way to think of the teacher-student relationship, one that holds out the prospect of radically transforming the educational experience. This is the notion of “students as partners” or “students as producers.” This approach treats students as co-creators of knowledge, who take an active role in research, the creation of educational resources and curricular content, and teaching itself. Teacher-student collaboration is the hallmark of this form of participatory pedagogy.
At Harvard there has been a longstanding effort to get science and engineering students "right into the lab" even as early as the freshman year. At the University of Texas at Austin, the Freshman Research Experience places some 700 first-year STEM students, many of whom are “at-risk,” into mentored research experiences.
At both institutions, the students become part of the research process, learn how a lab works, and sometimes get a co-author credit on a paper. No one seems surprised by this, and faculty members rarely say, "well, an 18-year old isn't ready for the big real word of the lab."
Instead, the students are seen as useful assets, and as a way to help address the pipeline problem. No one expects that these students are on par with say a seasoned graduate student, and they are not given the same level of access or responsibility. But they are not just thrown into a lab. Rather, grad students work closely with them, and, in the process, learn how to teach in a more supportive and collaborative way. It is also good for faculty members to get a sense of students in a non-class environment. These research experiences also convey, to future scientists, that lab work/research is collaborative and active.
This early research experiences provide working example of students as partners and producers that is part of a long-standing tradition and has long shown benefits to all participants. If this approach works in the lab, then why, we might ask, not try this in the classroom?
Originating in Britain, the student as partner or producer metaphor arose partly in reaction to the recent tendency to regard students as customers or consumers, whose needs and desires deserve to be privileged. To its critics, the student as customer language implies that colleges and universities are essentially businesses, that education is a commodity, and that students are recipients of goods and services that should be evaluated in terms of customer satisfaction and return on investment. Worse yet, many fear, it fosters a consumer mentality: That the faculty’s role is to meet students’ demands and expectations, resulting in grade inflation, receding reading and writing requirements, and elimination of classes on Fridays or outside of “prime” hours.
While many dislike the student as consumer metaphor, it didn’t arise out of nowhere. It emerged out of a demand that institutions be more accountable, that instead of treating students impersonally, as little more than “cash cows,” who receive precious little mentoring or close faculty contact, students need a more relevant, practical, and supportive education. It also appeared in reaction to a conception of colleges and universities as gatekeepers which were responsible for sorting and ranking students into those who were most capable and those who were not.
In stark contrast, the student as partner and producer model builds on a recognition that young people today have no particular desire to be passive or deferential, It seeks to engage students in their own learning, not simply through active learning strategies, but through authentic experience in professional practice, and by creating educational materials that can be useful to others. It demands that students be engaged in all aspects of a course or program, from blueprinting to instructional design.
What, in practice, does the student as partner and producer model entail? Four elements stand out.
1. Peer support
Advanced students might be used to lead study sessions and serve as peer mentors.
2. Co-architects of the curriculum
Students might play an active role in defining course objectives, designing course syllabi, suggesting activities, developing grading rubrics, and evaluating the curriculum as a whole.
3. Co-designers of support services
Students might actively participate in developing orientation programs and suggesting ways that support services can better meet student needs and schedules.
4. Mentored researchers
Students might serve as research collaborators or as independent researchers under the direction of a faculty, post-doc, graduate student, or upper-division undergraduate mentor.
Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.
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