Engagement from a Learning Perspective

Ever since Collegiate Renewal rolled out 3 years ago, student engagement has never been too far from my mind.  This past university term had allowed me really see firsthand what all the research is saying.

Unfortunately I had the “opportunity” to become a bit of a statistic.  Let’s stick with opportunity since it has been a wonderful reflection on all the professional development I’ve done in the past 3 years.  I was that student.  The one who completely disengaged from a subject material she absolutely adores.  Now, I totally understand that “Practices and Principles of Curriculum” is not everyone’s cup of tea.  I, however, love it.  My favorite undergrad course was “Theories of Education” (aside, I failed it, sigh).  We talked about Chomsky, Taylor, and all sorts of other way out there guys.  Spending a year on past & current theories of education and theorists in a way that is not particularly practical or useful to my current teaching practice was something I was excited about.  (Second aside, I 100% realize I should likely be pursuing my Masters in Foundations, but the math temporarily called me.  I can sometimes be practical.)

Then I re-lived a lesson I’m quite sure I knew way back when.  The teacher really does have a heck of a lot of control (far more than I’d like) on how students approach a course.  My prof was condescending from the first day.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a situation where I was treated with so little respect.  He was patronizing and it was obvious that he had very low expectations of “the Math teachers.”  This made forming any kind of relationship with him essentially impossible.  Later on in the year, when as a class we had “proven” ourselves in his mind, our relationship improved but barely.  It’s difficult to have any kind of relationship with someone who only gives backhanded compliments.

I think I was surprised at just how much this affected my learning.  Since the course content was something I loved, I originally assumed I would learn despite the professor.  In certain ways I did.  However, the prof monopolized class discussions and made sure to devalue our contributions.  This made really digging into the content in a collaborative way difficult.  The real fun in learning about theories (for me) is debating their place & value and really unpacking them using everyone’s opinion and experiences to do so.  As for the most part we were a very outspoken group of students we did still do a lot of this, but definitely not to the same degree as we could have with a prof who respected and facilitated our discussions instead of always needing to insert the “right” answer.

The assignments were another place I disengaged completely.  Last summer for a course I took I spent countless hours on my assignments, and was extremely invested in making sure they were my best work.  Assignments for this course were so vague it was difficult to invest in them.  There were no clear expectations of quality, just the opposite, the prof had a very low opinion of what kind of work we would produce.  I would like to say I’m the kind of person that then puts in the effort to prove people like this wrong.  I am not.  If you give me the impression you expect me to produce garbage, I will put in minimal effort and produce what I myself consider garbage.  The frustration of having absolutely no idea how something would be marked really was a good reminder for me that students can’t read my mind – explaining expectations (not that this was done here, but if it was) isn’t enough, you want those criteria in front of you, preferably with an exemplar or reference , when you’re working.  Being able to compare you work with another similar piece, in my opinion, doesn’t constrain your work but instead gives you a certain freedom to know where you can take risks while still respecting the criteria and quality that’s expected.

While I did find really valuable learning experiences in my course for myself, I couldn’t stop thinking about  what kind of torture this kind of experience would be like for someone who wasn’t really passionate in the subject matter.  I mean, really, part of what made this a great learning experience was all the time I spent dissecting what a terrible learning experience it was…  I hope this “teacher holds all knowledge and all power” approach is disappearing from our school system, K to whenever you choose to stop attending formal education.

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