June 10, 2007

Cede control to students? Revisited

Dan asks how I'd respond to this solution:
Cede instructional control to the student. Let her direct her own learning. Curriculum and student desire will align.
I teach university students, not high school; uni students are less easy to convince that they absolutely need what I'm teaching; they are IN (the uni) - the major extrinsic motivator for learning English previously.

I tend towards a negotiated syllabus. Here's why.

In the post that prompted Dan's question, I wrote about a mismatch between curriculum and student desires.

Pissed Off (Teacher)
's comment offers one approach to this dilemma, but to work it requires wielding a degree of fear:
if you don't learn this stuff, you'll be
  • out on the street

  • unemployable

  • a leech on society

  • one step from prostitution and/or gang membership

  • all of the above

What if students don't buy that? What if they don't believe that the consequences will be as terrible as you imply, OR they don't believe that even if they do learn this stuff, that the world will open to them?

In my situation, the hard part is getting in to university ("hard" is relative, and it's getting easier all the time, due to demographics). Once they are in, students pretty much sit back and take it easy, indulging in (what they are frequently told is) their last period of freedom before the penal servitude/military service of life in a Japanese company.

Therefore, there is not much incentive for students to work hard. Even getting better grades will not greatly affect the kinds of jobs they will get. What jobs they get depends a lot on the rank or name of the university they graduate from. As this ranking is outside their control or influence, there is not much incentive to work hard and get better grades.

Assuming that you believe what you are teaching is vital (or important) for students' future well-being, then a possible solution is to negotiate with students to find out what they are interested in, what topics they would willingly (or less unwillingly, at least) read about, talk about, write about.

Another reason for negotiating syllabus might be if the curriculum provided is quite obviously inappropriate, or if it's appropriacy is challengeable or open to debate. Perhaps students' reluctance is not so much a matter of "attitude" as that they do not consider the syllabus relevant or suitable. OK, then what would be suitable or relevant?

Dan's point about the importance of being engaging could be considered a form of negotiated syllabus. Otherwise, why bother?

Finally, I think that ceding complete control of learning content and direction to a student would work well in a one-to-one, tutorial situation, the ideal learning/teaching method. But I haven't made it work yet in an institutional setting, and I don't think it is either practical or effective, though I continue to be amazed by and admiring of people who try it, especially those who seem to succeed with it.

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