Perhaps the biggest single factor in reorienting students’ experiences to support democracy is a shift in pedagogy from traditional lecture-oriented instruction to student-centered active learning approaches. Teachers are accustomed to thinking about what “content” students will learn in a lesson, and this leads to thinking about teaching as lecturing. Instead, try thinking about what critical questions or issues you will discuss. Of course, teachers hold important content-area expertise, and students do need to learn content, but rather than planning lecture after lecture, you could, for example, identify a sequence of questions, short readings, discussions, or mini-lectures, to guide students towards the intended learning while giving them a far more active role in the process, and creating space for discussion. In addition, equal consideration should be given to what students will “practice” in that lesson. What students practice—that is, what they are physically and mentally doing during the lesson—is very important to their daily experience. These experiences condition students over time.
Students who are subjected to lectures and readings day after day are practicing sitting, being quiet, and being passive. Their learning is disconnected from activity, and may lead them to a feeling of detachment or apathy towards what they learn, and in turn, to complacency. On the other hand, students who are engaged in discussion and debate, who pose questions and inquire into them, who critique subject matter and connect it with experiences outside the classroom, are cultivating a more engaged and action-oriented disposition. They are developing autonomy and self-efficacy.
Getting There From Here
Get away from: Teacher talk (lectures)
Work towards: Student talk (discussions, debates, questions, reflections)
Get away from: Lecturing for long periods of time
Work towards: Using mini-lectures, class discussions, and guiding questions
Get away from: Always using the same teaching methods
Work towards: Using different instructional strategies so that students become adaptable and practice different skills, including a balance of individual and cooperative work
Get away from: Making all of the decisions for students about assignments
Work towards: Giving students some freedom of choice, with enough structure to help them grow
Get away from: Providing prescriptive steps that eliminate the need for students don’t need to think about processes
Work towards: Providing guidance and coaching, but giving students space to work things out for themselves
Get away from: Abstract and theoretical activities in which the teacher or the textbook is the center of attention
Work towards: Activities which involve students in meaningful discussion with their peers, including debate and group inquiry, as well as teacher-facilitated discussions
Get away from: Presenting content in isolation
Work towards: Inquiry activities in which learning is guided by important questions that students seek answers to
When you are planning your lessons, get in the habit of jotting down a few “critical thinking questions” which will challenge students’ to analyze the ideas, to compare, or evaluate, or take a position on an issue related to the topic.
Instead of preparing for a class-long lecture, take the same content and organize it as a mini-lecture (10-15 minutes, based on 4-6 main points). Think of some engaging questions for the class that will spark some discussion and allow you to guide the class towards deeper understanding.
Pick an important topic from your syllabus and organize a debate around it. Pick a question related to the topic that students will have different opinions on, then organize the class into two teams. Make guiding rules such as each team member must speak at least once before any team member may speak a second time.
Plan for variety, and try to use different instructional strategies each day. If you gave a lecture today, try organizing a discussion tomorrow, guided readings with critical questions, or any of the many other strategies available.
Matthew Hiebert 2013-08-29