Rhizo15: Toppling the teacher

Historically, when a dictator is removed from power, all the factions being oppressed by that dictator fight each other for power. This happens regardless of the peaceful or democratic or socialistic ambitions of those who topple the dictator. In ancient Greece, the pattern was from monarchy, to oligarchy, to tyranny (in this case a ruler brought to power by the people), to democracy, and then often back again to monarchy.

This isn’t because monarchy is a natural state, necessarily. It is because having been under a monarchy or dictatorship, people have had little opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to build something better, particularly with other people.

If we look at our educational system, many have described it as a hold-over from 19th century industrialization, the need to teach people to be good factory workers. This isn’t really true, as many great and creative thinkers came out of those schools, and made improvements in education as well as work.

But it’s a handy narrative for those who want to create a “freer”, inquiry-based experience for students, instead of emphasizing rote learning and one-size-fits-all curriculum.

ComierToppledSo this week we ask whether we could get rid of our glorious leader, Dave. We don’t want to focus on getting rid of Dave as Dave – Dave is so inherently likable, and he gave us all this opportunity to get rid of him. But if he were a dictator, and we were to topple him as a symbol of industrial education, with the goal of creating our own inquiry-based class, would it work?

Yes, because this class is full of people who have, usually through their own efforts and sometimes exclusively so, aquired the skills to be able to do that. If we do it with our students, it can certainly work for some of them (there are many examples of successful inquiry-based classes), but only if enough students acquire the skills necessary to function in that environment.

It is unlikely that students suddenly without a teacher would fight among themselves for control, however. Instead, they would likely seek another leader. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly, in committee meetings, classrooms, and local government. Many people do not want to inquire – they want to be told what to learn, what to think. When we open up the curriculum, they are lost and frustrated without enough guidance.

How do we get past this, help students (and ourselves) acquire the skills necessary to direct their own learning? Won’t we just be leaving different people behind when we topple the dictator?

7 thoughts on “Rhizo15: Toppling the teacher

  1. You raise an interesting point here (or spark me thinking in this direction): Some people are already ready to change the dynamics of teacher/learner and will jump into the fray. Others may get left behind, get lost and or just leave. That’s not good, either, even if there is empowerment when students become the head of the class.
    Kevin

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  2. There is a continuum of students ruled by curiosity on one end and students ruled by strategy on the other. Some are in-between. Some oscillate. Almost all are strategic as their default by the time they reach university. And when they are under pressure you are so right they only want to know how to pass the course. Your question is one I have not answered professionally or personally although I have tried for a while. How do we help folks become autodidacts especially when they don’t want to? Is it ethically right to make them or even try to make them embrace their own inquiry? Should we accomodate learning that is paint-by-numbers? Thanks for reminding me about this issue.

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    1. Hi Terry – good questions, and the paint-by-numbers things sounds significant, especially as I teach community college, where we are supposedly preparing them for university. At my level, I’d say only about half are even strategic – most have no plan for how to pass a class (even though it is what they want), much less get a degree.

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  3. I struggle with this – how can an autodidact help a non-autodidact want to be more autodidactic, and is it even possible? Can we teach curiosity? So many colleagues of mine seem to have none.

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  4. With the extrinsic motivation of grades, I think students naturally seek who is in charge, and what expectations or objectives that person has to measure them by. Some try to get by with less accountability in group projects, while others carry their own weight or more. This can be the same with the extrinsic motivation of a salary.

    Intrinsic motivation can lead to solitary learning with little or no guidance, to group endeavors with a leader and varying commitments on the part of participants, to mutual commitments that may or may not take turns at leadership.

    I think back to the Occupy movement, the tendency to share meeting facilitation tools through social media, the range of personalities and tactics that came forward in different cities, the projects taken on by smaller working groups, people making themselves heard to voice concerns. No single leader, lots of negotiation, conversations and decision making across very different backgrounds and life experiences. And connections that persist in many other ways, beyond the height of visibility of that movement.

    Inquiry and learning and leadership take place via many different roles than we might usually think of as teaching. When something is time-bound, or has a lot riding on it, recognized leadership can focus and streamline the endeavor. A more reflective community can often work by building on shared traditions over a long period. For the short time and wide scope of what we’re doing in Rhizo15, I think it’s fruitful to have one or a few people’s clear intention shed light on particular issues and questions.

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    1. Lisa, I think that “timebound” thing may be crucial. Do we really have time in a one-semester class to teach inquiry without the intrinsic motivation? I have struggled with this!

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