As a senior in high school, my favorite class by far was Literary Magazine Staff (affectionately referred to as Lit Mag) with Mr. Ericson. Up front, he told us that if we were going to have a literary magazine filled, designed, and printed by the end of the year, it would be because we (the students) had made it happen—not him. And with that declaration, we knew that he had complete faith in us. We all worked hard together that year to make our dream a reality. As a team, we identified strengths and skillsets, volunteered and delegated, and constantly met back together to check in and be accountable. By the end of the year, we had a magazine that we could say was completely our own. Undoubtedly, Mr. Ericson was a huge part of our success, but he didn’t drive the magazine or the class for us. He helped us formulate strategies, gave feedback on ideas and processes, and worked hard himself to secure funding and administrative support for our product. We couldn’t have done as much as we did without him. But his choice to hand the class over to us and to let us direct ourselves made it one of the most formative and satisfying experiences I had throughout high school.
As a teacher now myself, I want to provide my students with similarly meaningful experiences. First-year composition is often challenging for students, sometimes even discouraging, so I want to implement pedagogical practices that help them find it worthwhile, maybe even a little bit worldview-changing. In my determination to provide such an experience, though, I sometimes fall into the trap of believing that what I have to say, what I have to share, whatever information I’ve prepared for that day is the heart of the class—that I need to transfer as much of my knowledge to them as possible in order for my students to learn and have a worthwhile experience.
That kind of approach—I’ll call it “teacher-centric”—makes an argument. But is it the argument we want our students to believe or that we ourselves want to endorse? By placing the teacher at the center of the class, we forfeit substantial benefits that might just be the ones we were actually hoping to achieve for our students. How can we expect students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills if the way we teach only ever asks them to memorize and recite essential information we ourselves provide? How can we expect them to enjoy learning with all its challenges and discomforts if we aren’t inviting them to engage and invest in our classrooms?
What happens when we redesign our pedagogy to be student-, rather than teacher-, focused? Studies show that when students are self-directed and feel in charge of their learning that they are more engaged in their coursework. Their positive affect (specifically feelings of interest, excitement, and pride) increases (Ely, et. al.). That positive affect, especially as far as it generates interest in the student, can result in more significant investments on the student’s part than they might experience in a teacher-driven curriculum. I spent a lot of time outside of the actual class period designated for Lit Mag, working through student submissions, designing pages for the final layout, talking with fellow staff members. And it never felt like a burden. We were excited to work together on this project we cared about, and when we ran into problems, we were determined to work through them and see our work through to the end. As much as I enjoyed my other classes, none of them lit a fire in me in quite the same way. And like I said, that investment I made gave me the best return of my high school career. I’d never felt so satisfied with or proud of a school project, so inspired to launch into my future and find new projects and teams to work with in order to produce something we believed in.
Experiential learning shares the objectives of traditional curricula—critical thinking, evaluation, creativity, etc.—but it challenges the teacher-centric model as the most effective way to reach those objectives. Consider the argument Mr. Ericson made through the pedagogy he practiced in Lit Mag. By removing himself from the center of the class, from the notion of his role as “dispenser of information,” Mr. Ericson argued that we ourselves were just as, if not more important to the learning experience than himself. He argued that a teacher cannot supply or replicate the learning that happens when a student is fully engaged and shouldering the responsibility for their learning. He argued that we were capable individuals, not cups to be filled with his own knowledge and perspectives. That trust in us fueled our work and our vision of what we could make happen if we set our minds to it.
Having a teacher in the classroom is essential—I’m not arguing against that. But it’s worth considering what arguments our pedagogical practices make to our students and whether those really align with our goals and, more importantly, their goals and their development as self-motivated lifelong learners.
Ely, Robert, Mary Ainley, & Jon Pearce. “More than Enjoyment: Identifying the Positive Affect Component of Interest That Supports Student Engagement and Achievement.” Middle Grades Research Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 2013, pp. 13-32.