The practice of praxis. Are we asking the right questions?
Every year with my students I discuss what is curriculum and how does one create it? We go from didactic situations through to praxis, reading and then discussing, and this year something hit me. In learning I believe that only the person can learn, e.g. no teacher can ‘learn you’ as one of my great uncles claimed ‘that teacher learned me good’… or maybe not. People can teach but learners are the ones doing the learning for themselves – along with, despite, and sometimes beyond the scope of the teaching. I come to this from the point of view of the teacher, the one responsible for designing the setting and choosing the core methods and content, the one shaping interactions and advising engagement. One of my goals is to build toward co-facilitation, co-engagement and even co-development.
I asked one of my students, so how do you create a student-centred environment? I ask this in all sorts of learning environments and generally get the same answer: #ff6600;">Ask the student.
This is the right answer and the wrong answer. Let me demonstrate.
Imagine learning a new instrument. You are learning the bassoon. Fantastic! You go to your first lesson and have no clue how to assemble the instrument. It isn’t because the instrument is actually new, as in a bookshelf that comes from the shop in pieces. The bassoon has to be physically assembled and disassembled each time it is taken out of the case. Your teacher wants to create a student-centred learning setting, so when you turn up for the start of your lessons they start by asking, ‘what do you want to learn? I want you to guide the learning.’ (Cue an astonished and blank look on the student’s face, with a touch of possible panic) um….. How could the student be expected to answer the question?
Consider another example where the student has perhaps more knowledge: singing. If you were studying singing and we’re asked what you wanted to learn, you may well have a favourite song. This is a start, but there is still a good chance that you are not aware of the voice as an instrument. Even when it seems that someone might have experience of the task, or know something of it, they may not know enough to answer the question in terms of being the complete creator of their learning path. Where speaking is commonplace, and people often match pitches, and sing along with songs, but the voice is an instrument too and singing takes careful technique just like the bassoon. Someone untrained is not likely to have the physiological and technical knowledge necessary to make an informed decision.
This scenario is true of any topic. For me to consider how to involve my students in the lecture-based class on classical music in the late 1800s, the best path is not to directly ask ‘what do you want to learn’ simply because they may not have the baseline knowledge to answer that question. The thing that hit me was that this is not just the wrong question, but it is the wrong SORT of question. Perhaps a better question is not what, but how. People do know what they enjoy doing, whether that is sitting and listening, chatting, walking, exploring, reading, making- and these are the sorts of things that can easily be answered and folded into the curriculum to begin to create praxis.
When teaching Class X there are core tenants that need to be introduced and understood. Asking how do you want to learn can open doors to engagement even if it seems like a little step at first. Going back to the music lesson scenario, I teach all my students that in lesson situations they need at least three different ways to explain a concept or technique. One way might be good for one student, but it will not work for everyone. That is not to say that in large scale teaching someone would or could have multiple modes of engagement, because – …. well actually why the heck not?
I had the pleasure of taking a class with Howard Rheingold and he set down rules for expectation and engagement, and yes, there was an imbalance with engagement. Convincing people to actually participate was a challenge. That is something to be aware of in life- now more than ever we are schooled to be complicit and complacent. He also allowed people to choose suggested roles for their engagement, and encouraged people to take different roles throughout the different topics of the course. Someone might be a scribe one week and work on collecting external sources related to the topic the next week. A third person might be working on a communicable lexicon resource by defining terms that co-learners were interested in or unsure of.
He did not just ask, ‘what do you want to learn?’ As that is too far a leap for most. It takes years of study to learn to be your own teacher and even then, if and when you are proficient at teaching yourself, there is definitely still the need for others. Learning does not happen without connection- internal and external.
I’ve been writing this on the plane and we’re about to land, so it’s time to put this away. A final thought: do you ask what, do you ask how, do you ask at all, and are you willing to receive and act upon the answers from your learners to create praxis.