Lost and Found in the Classroom

Ellen Goldberger considers ideas of the labyrinth and the maze -- and experience with mediation -- as she thinks about reaching her students.

February 27, 2009

In 1990 I began to mediate cases for the Harvard Mediation Program; that same year I was hired to teach law and conflict resolution to undergraduates at Mount Ida College. It took me several years to realize how my experience as a mediator could enrich and improve my teaching methods in the classroom. It all came together when I began to use labyrinths and mazes as tools for teaching the mediation process.

The terms labyrinth and maze are often treated as synonyms, but there is one key difference between them: A labyrinth has only one way in and one way out; you cannot get lost or choose a wrong path. A maze has choices, various ways in and out, numerous dead ends and deceptive paths. In the Greek myth, Daedalus was commissioned to build a structure to house the deadly Minotaur (half man, half bull). The so-called “labyrinth” he constructed was actually an intricate maze, which prevented the Minotaur from finding its way out. This is why (later in the myth) Ariadne gave Theseus a long thread to help him find his way back out of the maze after slaying the Minotaur.

Labyrinths were popular in the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages; the famous pavement labyrinth in the Cathedral at Chartres was designed to help people on their spiritual journeys. Pilgrims walked the winding path until they arrived at the heart of the labyrinth, a symbol of the quest for enlightenment.

I used to view teaching as a labyrinth, one way in, one way out: You came to class well prepared, gave interesting lectures, allocated time for group exercises and role-plays, assigned relevant readings and papers, and posed provocative questions for discussion. Students completed their assignments on time, came prepared to discuss the reading in class, studied diligently for exams, participated enthusiastically in group exercises, and mastered the major concepts of the course. What could be simpler?

You can stop laughing now. After a couple of semesters I realized that I couldn’t approach my courses the same way my professors had approached theirs. Students’ expectations often did not align with my own; they had different priorities, challenges and attitudes toward their work. Teaching was not, in fact, a labyrinth; it was a loopy and perplexing maze full of unexpected turns and dead ends, and I desperately needed a thread.

The thread emerged from my mediation training and practice, which, when I finally made the connection, helped me find a solution to the conflict between my students’ and my own expectations.

Mediation clients are not unlike our students: anxious, somewhat leery of the process, fearful of the unknown, hesitant to take risks. Disputing parties often expect the mediator to suggest solutions to their problems. But the first principle of mediation -- self-determination of the parties -- requires that the mediator not suggest but elicit solutions from the parties.

There are several reasons for this strategy, the most important of which is that if the solution does not come from the parties themselves, they feel less invested in their agreement and are less likely to uphold it. If a way out of their maze can be found, the parties must find it themselves, with the mediator’s guidance. In this respect, mediation is an exercise in critical and creative thinking, a form of teaching and learning.

At some point I realized that self-determination and ownership of outcomes was as important for my students as for my mediation clients. So I decided to apply this basic principle to one persistent problem I was encountering in the classroom.

I was frustrated in my Leadership Studies Seminar because students would not do the assigned reading before class. Instead of participating in a discussion of materials they had previously read, they came to class apparently expecting me to go through chapter and verse, highlighting everything they needed to know for the exam (and nothing else, thank you). Sound familiar?

I tried the usual strategies to encourage them to read the assigned pages before they came to class: in-class minute papers, group presentations, pop quizzes, study questions, penalties for lack of class participation. (I know that these tools can be helpful and even essential. They just didn’t solve this particular problem.) My students didn’t budge. I was giving myself a lot of extra grading and they still weren’t reading before they came to class. Yes, students who didn’t read the text got low grades on exams, but that didn’t improve class discussions or make me feel any better.

Clearly, as I often urged my mediation clients, I needed to approach the problem from a fresh perspective. I wanted my students to read the materials in advance so they were familiar with the issues raised in our class discussions, and not rely on me to do the reading and thinking for them. I didn’t want to spend valuable class time on pop quizzes or questions that received blank stares in return. I wanted the class to be fun and thoughtful and to get students to engage more actively. I had reached a dead end and needed to find a way out.

I settled on a plan that allowed for more choice and autonomy in how students prepared for class. In each class we would explore in depth only one or two major issues, based on short articles or passages (students chose them from a selection) we would read together at the beginning of class. However, students were responsible for all assigned readings on the syllabus, whether or not we discussed them in class. If they had questions or comments about the reading, they could bring them to class. If they had no questions, I would trust that they understood the material.

For exams, students could bring in any notes they had prepared themselves or in a study group. (No photocopies or handouts were allowed.) This policy obviated the need for memorization of the text and encouraged students to use their time to read all of the assigned materials, organize their thoughts, and approach the reading with a critical eye to determine how the information might appear on an exam.

No exam question could be answered straight out of the text; all questions called for application of leadership theories and concepts to scenarios drawn from our films. Students were required to support their arguments with concrete examples from the text and films, and in most cases, analyze and draw conclusions about the choices made by the leaders we were studying.

In the last class, armed with their notes, students gathered in small groups and drafted a list of five essay questions they thought would be appropriate for the final exam. Each group chose two questions to share with the class, and group recorders wrote them on the board. We then discussed possible answers and supporting evidence. The final exam had one required essay and a choice of four of six remaining essay questions.

The experiment succeeded on several levels. We all enjoyed the short communal readings and in-depth discussions; the material was fresh in our minds and everyone was on an equal footing in terms of preparation. For my students, the pressure was off to complete all of the required readings before each class, and I didn’t feel as though I had to lecture and review the reading in order to fill an information vacuum.

Most students (I wish I could say all) did the assigned reading at their own pace, brought well organized notes to exams, and in some cases formed study groups. Since students didn’t have to spend time memorizing the text or fake their answers on exams if they drew a blank, their essays were much more thoughtful and well-reasoned, in some cases a delight to read. And because they were given a choice of essays on the midterm and final, they could present their best work.

One unexpected bonus was that, since I no longer reviewed all of the textual material in each unit (students now owned that task), we had time to surf the Web to find supplemental information on the leaders we had viewed on film. My students took charge of that and enjoyed teaching me shortcuts through cyberspace.

For me, this was Ariadne’s thread: my students were more active and engaged, wrote much better exams, and seemed to respect my goal of giving them more choices in the teaching and learning process. Our class discussions were thoughtful and lively. But best of all, I could stop being the Minotaur in the classroom.


Ellen Goldberger is a professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Mount Ida College, in Massachusetts.


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