Monday, October 15, 2007

Power and Voice in the Classroom

"Children learn to make good decisions by making
decisions, not by following directions."

-Alfie Kohn

I have always started my lessons or unit off with a question. A question I created, a question I thought was intriguing, a question broad enough that it’s answer could possibly used as part of a response to a thematic essay on a global studies regents exam.

The original question proposed by a teacher should only be a starting point though. If we don’t allow “student voice” we are silencing half of a conversation in our classrooms. When teachers are hell bent on students answering “teacher questions” they tend to disregard the student perspective.

During a Columbus Day PD made possible by the Inventing the People , Teaching American History grant, I discovered the masterful ballet of teacher generated vs. student generated questions appears to be a key element in the art of teaching. When teachers generate questions they already know what responses they want students to have. In a sense ‘teacher questions’ are intrinsically non-authentic.

Why do we as educators struggle so much with authentic questions? Could it be the fear of losing power? Is the thought of not knowing where the students will end up in a lesson too overwhelming? Teachers seem to be relieved of this fear by asking fabricated non-authentic questions.

On the contrary, student generated questions are inherently authentic. Students by their nature want to know things. Students when given the opportunity to ask an authentic question most likely do not take into consideration standardized tests, or community concerns over curriculum.

Surprisingly though it is not enough to just have students generate the questions. The ideas need to be developed, and the course of the lesson needs to be flexible. Respecting student perspective is a charge all educators are mandated to uphold. Listen to what students say and change the course of your lesson.

When students don’t ask traditional “on track” questions teacher should not be so quick to dismiss these questions. Students ask “off track” questions and generate apparently “left field” ideas because of the disconnect. The disconnect is between where the teacher is bringing the class and where the students are themselves. Alfie Kohn touches on this power struggle of student generated vs. teacher generated class discussion in his book, The Schools our Children Deserve.

“Indeed, the story of American schools is – and always has been- the story of doing things TO students rather than working WITH them”

-Alfie Kohn

Next time I'm involved in a discussion in class, next I'm worried about "where" I am in the curriculum, I think its important for me to step back and reflect on the rich conversation that took us "off track." What decisions did we as a community of learners make?

According to Thomas Jefferson, the real work of teachers in the US has always been to create an informed citizenry. A people able to make informed and critical decisions. A democratic classroom of engaged learners can only occur when all options, questions and ideas are respected. When teachers as power figures begin to be the sole proprietors of the choices in a classroom democracy is squashed. Teachers who ignore student intrests by providing a menu of options students can choose from are still afraid of the democratic ideal.

"There is small choice in rotten apples." - Shakespeare

Please fell free to leave comments!


Superfly said...

Of course we're still afraid of democratic education. Heaven forbid a student should begin thinking for his or herself...

But *truly* democratic education... In this country... In more than a tiny palm-ful of private K-8 schools... "Wouldn't it be lover-ly...?"

Steve said...

Schools have become such a tumultuous place, that it is understandable teachers want to maintain as much control as possible. However, you are perfectly correct in comparing the authenticity of teacher questions vs. student questions.

Unless students become engaged in the learning process, and have their questions answered, they tend to 'tune-out' and just 'go through the motions'. This is the anti-thesis of encouraging true learning.

Please read "Set Our Teachers FREE! A Plan to Save Public Education" by Don Kingsland