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Speaking Out

A Learner-Centered Course?

When was the last time you gave your students a choice? A real one: a choice of topics or learning methods. If you have to think about it, then you probably aren’t running a learner-centered course.

We congratulate ourselves on our achievements as instructors when our students perform well against criteria which we developed or which were given to us by administrators. We imbibe the discourse of business world and search for efficiency gains, believing this improves the learning experience. We teach, profess and deliver. We are assembly line managers dressed up in academic regalia.

Where are the students? In contemporary pedagogy they are passive; they receive what we give them. Even when students are co-creating an experience with instructors or learning through peer group activities according to our agenda, they are merely producing something for us. If you doubt this, look at your last exam or essay topic and wonder where the opportunity for student feedback is. We solicit student feedback separately, if at all, because we believe it relevant to the teaching process only, and unconnected with performance.

Imagine, if you can, that student feedback was part of performance, that student participation extended to course fundamentals. Could you ask your students to choose whether they wanted to meet for discussion or explore your subject through field experience? Could you ask your students what kind of history or literature or physics they wanted to study this term instead of giving them a syllabus?

Objections to such ideas are all rooted in devotion to the status quo: Funding would be impossible. The system couldn’t handle it. Students wouldn’t learn anything. Consider this last one: How do you know students wouldn’t learn anything? We think this because the education industry molds us to believe that students learn from us and not for themselves. Thus, students are objects and not subjects of learning.

If we are really interested in getting students to learn, we must involve them intimately and early in the learning experience and the teaching process. If we are serious about students co-creating anything, we ought to co-create pedagogy. This means we must ask them authentically for their input and cherish it. Presently, we do none of this as long as we impose our structure upon their learning. Change is possible if we have the imagination and the courage to put the focus in learning where it belongs: with students.

-Michael Madil, an adjunct professor of government at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois, was educated at London University and the University of Michigan. He lives in Chicago with his family.

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