Something wonderful happened in the biology lab this past semester. Stressed students began to laugh. The shy felt comfortable asking questions. They sometimes challenged my explanations. This spurred curious debate and conversation, and a willingness for us both to explore beyond the lesson plan. I shifted from a teacher of content to a facilitator of learning.
Post-secondary teachers are trained to be experts in their field. Yet how do we provide a suitable framework for learning? Many instructors, including myself, are put before students with scant preparation, our only model the example by which we were taught. Knowing the photosynthetic chloroplast mechanism in intimate detail may be important; understanding the best method for engaging students with this complex organelle is vital.
Students complain that their classes are boring, that teachers teach from the book, that they are overwhelmed by essays and exams. They complain because they are not inspired. The central role of the educator is to provide an enriching—and perhaps transformative—learning experience.
I am fortunate to work in an open-lab environment, which maximizes one-on-one time with students. Even so, it took nine years for me to embrace this new paradigm. I needed to learn five key lessons.
Provide a safe container.
Students need a voice. Some will be readily vocal, others hide behind a shell. A safe container is one in which students feel respected and able to contribute.
Building this container takes time and trust. Start on day one. Learn student names. Invite questions. Avoid long lectures with little interaction. Check in with their progress.
I reinforce this reciprocal foundation every week. Within this open and inviting environment, students begin to trust themselves. They feel empowered and rely on their own questions. As they come alive to the process, they are no longer content to sit back and listen.
When I started nine years ago, I was the nice teacher. Now I readily challenge students. And they challenge me, without fear of judgement. The tone set and container provided permeates all levels of learning in the classroom (or in my case, the lab). If we want students to participate—and let’s face it, their participation is just as important, if not greater than, our own—we must open the door for their involvement.
Be present. Engage.
The act of being present is the single most important identity of the educator. To be present is to involve and inspire students.
Proceed with passion. My level of enthusiasm often influences a student’s level of interest and commitment to a topic.
A two-hour lecture, offered in the same manner semester after semester, serves the student no better than a powerpoint presentation uploaded to the course website. Engage with the student, not the content. Whether working with one individual or an entire class, follow the basic fundamentals of good communication. Always face learners. Make eye contact. Use their names. Listen as well as you speak. Too often, these simple necessities are overlooked. At all times, be approachable.
To ensure the classroom is engaging, open up a dialogue as often as possible. Act as a fellow participant rather than an authority figure. The parcels of information we present to students is secondary to the process by which they are received, discussed, and disseminated. At the end of the day, choose purposeful conversation over static content.
Standing in front of the classroom, with students facing you in rows, immediately sets the stage: they are to listen, and you are to be heard. Tear down this fabricated and pedantic barrier to learning. Move around the classroom. Better yet, sit in a circle. This can be daunting for both student and teacher, but it encourages direct involvement and interaction.
I try not to hide my fallibility. If I am transparent in what I say and do, students are more inclined to be open. They speak to uncertainties, voice difficult concerns, and are confident enough to make mistakes. And it is these mistakes from which we best learn.
“I don’t know.”
It took me years to say this without discomfort when a student asked a question whose answer, well, I did not know. Rather than act defensive, I now take this as an opportunity to explore. We have a conversation. By this example, students focus less on right and wrong, and more on the journey toward discernment and comprehension. In other words, critical thinking.
Let the student lead.
Students are the captains of their education. We are merely guides, or occasional mentors. As a teacher, my primary responsibility is not to impart information, but to inspire learning. I may want to be in charge, and have control over the learning process, because shouldn’t I know best?
Weekly quizzes may keep students on task, but they may also build resentment. Students are not paying enormous tuition to have us implant concepts and definitions. (This bears repeating: students are paying us for a service, therefore we are obliged to provide an educational experience that they enjoy.) They want to be inspired.
Consider oral presentations over essays. Let students have input into project topics and class discussions. The path may deviate from the lesson plan. Resist the temptation to pull them back to the main track. Instead, look for the points of intersection. Allow for cross-pollination by connecting a diverse range of ideas. Unity of variety is fundamental to both science and creativity.
This past semester, two cell biology students created a crossover of the light reactions of photosynthesis and Super Mario Brothers. Sunlight was a power-up, electrons were mushrooms, and Bowser powered the proton pump. They had a safe place to explore this metaphorical project and were excited to bounce ideas off one another in order to bring this abstract concept to light. This student-led experience cemented their understanding of thylakoid membranes and electron transport chains. My role was to encourage from a distance.
Studies show that the more a student is involved, the more they retain. Creativity, movement and opportunities to speak (remember, having a voice is vital) are not only beneficial to the learning process, they are essential to student empowerment. A lone teacher standing at the podium does not inspire involvement. The more I sacrifice control, the more students take ownership of their education.
Be mindful in your expectations.
Every student is unique. Some are auditory learners, others visual. Some need structure, others thrive in self-guided projects. To expect students to perceive, interpret and express ideas one particular way is like wearing blinders in a snowstorm. Learners, by the very nature of learning, invariably surprise me. A facilitator—I prefer this word to teacher—adapts to the needs and wants of the students at hand.
Students provide us with ample opportunity for frustration. They mix up words, give ambiguous half-answers, take shortcuts, and, at first glance, otherwise appear incompetent and unprepared. Yet such hasty conclusions are unfair and damaging toward any relationship.
I remember doing an evaluation where I pointed to a model of the kidney and asked for the name of a specific structure. “Penis,” was the student’s response. Not what I expected. I could laugh, now or later, with my colleagues over this penile faux-pas. However, my mandate is not to ridicule but to help bridge the gap in a student’s understanding.
Why did he mistake kidney tubules for a penis? Well, the model’s oversized nephron does bear a vague resemblance to the male sex organ. Plus, the urethra is included on the model, which, of course, passes through the penis, at least in those of us with Y chromosomes. In this way, the student’s confusion and potential source of embarrassment becomes a dialogue.
Expectation is the seed of disappointment. Be mindful to the path the student provides. Explore the unpredictable, and find alternate paths to assimilation. As an educator and facilitator, I am constantly learning from and evolving alongside my students. The change I see in them is reflected back at me.
Forget the way you were taught. Teach the way students learn best: engaging, experiential, and open to possibility.