Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
by Bob Dick
I’ve decided that classrooms are not friendly to learning.
I don’t think that it’s always the classroom as such. Yes, there are tiered classrooms with fixed furniture. They are inherently unfriendly. Many other classrooms, though, can be arranged in ways that are congenial. And useful learning can be stimulated even in unfriendly classrooms.
As I see it, much of the problem is that the learners bring “classroom attitudes” into the classroom with them. I think the attitudes are more important, in the end, than the actual classroom layout.
There was a time when I was a full time academic with responsibility for several courses. Before each class, if possible, I’d reconfigure the classroom. I’d stack the desks at the back of the room. I’d arrange the chairs, space permitting, into a large circle. My intention was for the layout to proclaim that this wasn’t a lecture.
People who had experienced my classes in the past were comfortable with this. Newcomers sometimes were not. The door would open and a head would appear. The person would sweep the classroom with a glance. The expression on their face would say, “Oh, I must be in the wrong place,” and they would disappear.
Presumably they then enquired elsewhere about the location of the social consultancy class, or whatever it was. They would return and ask tentatively if they were, after all, in the right place.
In my earliest days as an academic I’d then guide the class into course design. Together we’d decide what the course contents were to be, within some limits of being true to label and fair to all concerned.
To my dismay, that too was a mixed success. The resulting design was often unimaginative, and there was often a lot more anxiety in the room than I expected. The room layout may have proclaimed to the learners that it wasn’t a lecture. But what was it? The uncertainty triggered the anxiety, I assume.
It’s often said that “teachers” learn more than learners. (The word is in quotes because I don’t believe that anyone can actually teach. Learners can learn. The most that teachers, so-called, can do is to create an environment in which learning is enabled and encouraged.)
In any event, it’s true that I learned a lot. I learned about the role of expectations, and the value of relationships. As a too-logical introvert, I didn’t find these to be easy lessons for me. But their worth became apparent. Trial and error, with much help from the learners, guided me towards a better understanding.
Several years of experiment and very many helpful learners led me in time to a different approach. My initial priority became building a sense of community in the class as a whole and close relationships within small groups. With those sources of support in place, we could begin to negotiate expectations. And I do mean “negotiate.” The learners and I eventually understood one another and what we wanted from the class. We could then begin the course.
I won’t go into detail about the negotiation process. It’s not that I’m reticent about it. It’s just that it wasn’t simple. Perhaps I’ll address it in another blog at another time. You’ll find details HERE of an earlier version of the course.
For now, I’ll just say this. With expectations and relationships looked after, we could then embark on course design. We’d determine the course content. We’d identify the learning processes we could use. We’d negotiate roles — theirs and mine.
Then, within the negotiated expectations, participants would facilitate each others’ learning. More often than not, a substantial part of most class sessions would then consist of experiential workshops. Most of the workshops were designed and run by small groups of learners with their class colleagues as participants. Other learners filled other roles in the class.
For me, the learning didn’t stop there. I took what I learned in the classroom into my work as consultant and facilitator. There, too, I found that relationships and expectations are a solid foundation for effective and collaborative work. That was valuable learning indeed, which I still use.
Bob Dick (find him on Twitter) is an independent scholar, an occasional academic, and a consultant in the fields of community and organisational change. His distaste for controlling others or being controlled by them attracts him to learner-centred and client-centred approaches in the classroom and elsewhere. He lives in the leafy western suburbs of Brisbane with the love of his life, Camilla, an absurdly large library, and a feral possum that each evening knocks over everything breakable that it can find.