Let them go
Let your people do the job their own way.
You will be amazed at what they can do.
My father told this to me in 1969.
You cannot be overly controlling when dealing with people and humility has its virtues. Everyone has a vision of how things may be done and others' ideas may well be far better than those that you have.
My goal is to help students develop their capabilities, so that they can become informed, critical, insightful thinkers and doers. To do that, I need to identify the particular goal of my class, point out the path to that goal, and provide them tools to help them navigate that path, then work with them as they find their way.
In this process, I should be humble enough to accept that they may not exactly take the same path I would, may not decide to believe all of the things I believe.
However, if they can grasp the essence of what I am trying to impart to them and can show that they can put that understanding into useful operation, then maybe I have succeeded.
You've got to accentuate the positive,
eliminate the negative,
latch on to the affirmative,
don't mess with Mr. Inbetween
If I can empathize with the lives the students are living, then perhaps I can seize control of the things I can control and try to make them work for the students.
Accentuate the positive I try to be unremittingly positive in my exchanges with the students. In class, I try to address their questions directly and immediately. Outside of class, I try to keep a steady flow of email chatter with those who want to talk. Many times a student feels uneasy displaying either too much or too little in front of their peers. However, a private communication seems to open up a safe channel for them to communicate their concerns and ideas and I turn around pertinent items to class forums, stripping out anything that would identify the author. The fact that they can indirectly have a positive benefit on the knowledge and awareness of their fellow students, while still maintaining their anonymity, seems to be useful.
Eliminating the negative has its place as well. Eliminating the negative also means eliminating the unnecessary. All class notes, all assignments, and all deliverables are done electronically. Students need never worry about paying for printing costs, need never concern themselves with handling paper. Since students are expected to have laptop computers and since we know that we all use computers to do most of the things involved in academic work, I use them as the sole method of handling assignments. Web work and blogs, email and email attachments; all are easy ways to eliminate some of the things that just get in the way.
One of the most important things I got out of the Center for Teaching and Learning seminar for new teaching assistants was the advice to latch on to the affirmative. Following this advice, I tell my students that I accept without question that they are honorable individuals and that I accept anything they tell me to be the truth. They don't have to come up with reasons why I should accept their actions or decisions; they only need tell me they have reasons compelling them to do or not do something and I will accept them. We try to have an affirmative sense of mutual respect and trust.
Not messing with Mr. Inbetween is a bit more problematic. There are very few firm and fixed issues and every circumstance has within it the potential for change and evolution. One of the basic ground rules that I emphasize to each class is that everything is negotiable. However, no negotiation can take place if communication does not occur. I am willing to listen to any suggestion, but the students have to initiate the dialog. I am willing to mess with Mr. Inbetween, but I won't start the process. In our instructor-student relationship, the student has to introduce Mr. Inbetween.
Take care of the people and they will take care of the mission
Whenever I heard this phrase in my service time, it irritated me because I felt that we all were responsible for doing our duty and needn't be concerned with personal needs. I had always been one who took care of the mission and never one who had to be concerned with the well-being of anyone other than myself. I had felt lucky to have served for a series of really good commanders. When I became a commander for the first time, the phrase made sense to me. I had been able to focus on taking care of the mission because my commanders had done a good job making the rest of my life easy, so that I could focus on the mission.
What does this have to do with teaching? Maybe not much, but it seems as appropriate as part of a teaching philosophy as it did as part of a command philosophy. Taking care of people means relieving them of the stresses of the unknown. I try to be as prepared as I can be and to have everything ready for each student at each class session. From the very start of the semester, each student should be able to understand the expectations of both instructor and student. By being as fully prepared as possible, I can take care of the students so that they can focus on learning.
Taking care of the people also means helping them structure their lives so that they can have an optimum opportunity to succeed in whatever they are doing. In the classroom, it might mean reserving the three seats nearest to the door so that the students who have to hike up to Manning from the business school can slide into class 10 minutes late every day without disturbing the others. Perhaps more significantly, students know that there isn't anything they can ask me that I won't try to find an answer for. They know that I care about their situations. They also know that I do not get too close to anyone, but that I always try to point them in a direction that might be right for them. If you take care of the students, they will take care of the learning.
Task, Condition, Standard
But they can't always take care of learning on their own. The learning environment needs to have a recognizable structure. An instructor might well be a very linear individual who needs a building block approach, while many students might very well be global learners who react best in a hyperlinked environment. The reverse might also be true, or, more likely, both instructor and student may well be a bit schizoid, needing linearity in some things, randomness in others. The US Army divides learning objectives into Tasks, Conditions, and Standards. Though it was built for the needs of a large scale training situation, the model is useful for an academic situation as well.
In the Army's view, "all learning objectives must be realistic, attainable, observable, and measurable." I try to structure my courses with a schedule of activities and events that the students can see on Day One. By combining the syllabus with the class notes, we can see our expectations and the steps we will take to arrive at our goal. The schedule clearly shows the tasks to be considered, the dates on which they are taken up, and the assignment that is based on the sessions. The student can weigh the relative conditions and choose to focus on any or all of them (though they are so closely intertwined that it would be difficult to do some, but not all of the assignment). The gradesheet is the standard that states explicitly what must be done to constitute task success. Additionally, the students know exactly how grades and task success are related. I spend a fair amount of time on Day One explaining the grading schema and explaining how everyone starts with a blank slate. Each assignment builds points toward a grade and the final result is simply a recounting of the points earned over the course of the semester. I find that students are a bit more comfortable with clear numerical standards, standards that they can calculate for themselves so they can judge how they are doing or what more they need to do.
On further reflection, however, perhaps I need to alter this component. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, in part, that instructors should ask themselves three questions.
- TASK: what, exactly do they want students to do?
- PURPOSE: Why are they asking students to do it?
- CRITERIA: How will they evaluate the work?
Perhaps TASK, PURPOSE, and CRITERIA need to be the three elements.
esse quam videri
to be rather than to seem
I hope to help the students become people who can actually do something rather than remain people who seem to be able to do something.
To achieve this, I want to structure the environment so that the students spend as much time actually doing things as they do listening or reading about doing things. I try to give them enough to do that they develop a sense of confidence in their own ability to do things independently. So far, the courses I have taught have been tailor-made for this goal, but I think any course I might teach could be so structured as to permit the students to do things that will make them able to do newer things. My goal is to make them independent thinkers.
To that end, I give them a lot of leeway, a lot of rope. I am ready to help them pull on that rope, to help them succeed in their growth. But that rope has more than one purpose. On the affirmative side, it is a rope to pull themselves (with my willing assistance) up to the goal – "to be rather than to seem." However, the rope can also be connected to a weight. They can pull themselves to the goal or I can help them, but if they don't pull their weight, my help cannot make up for that lack of effort.