Picking Up Speed, V

The remarkable Dr. Laura Gibbs, who has been such a help and inspiration to me throughout my adventure with the Tres Columnae Project, wrote an amazing blog post recently about another complex paradox involved in teaching and learning: the need to balance “teacher authority and student initiative.”  There was a great discussion about Laura’s blog post on this Google+ thread, and there were also some related conversations on this one.

And it was all so relevant to the theme of paradox that I began to wrestle with in my post here yesterday – a theme I’ve been thinking about because of the paradoxical blend of structure and freedom, of speed and slowness, of autonomy and direction, that different groups of students seem to need this year.  But of course it’s not just this year: every learner is different, so every class needs a constantly-changing blend of those elements and many, many others.  I’ve just been paying closer attention this year, or something.

I was especially struck by a comment that Liz Stevenson made on one of the Google+ threads:

This is a developmental issue. You can’t take someone at the level of development where authority rules and drop them into a multiperspectival reality and expect them to understand what is going on. They cannot understand a level they haven’t reached yet….

It’s not as though I’m ignorant of stage theories, and in fact I frequently refer to Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.  (I thought I had even done so here, but a search for “Kohlberg” seems to be coming up empty.  Apparently there’s a reference to Piaget somewhere in this post from 2010, though.)  And yet I hadn’t made the connection between conventional moral reasoning and some of my students’ need for an authoritarian stance from me until I read Liz’s comment.

What was up with that?

As soon as I read her comment, it all became perfectly clear.  Of course it’s hard for some of my students to “manage themselves,” as I ask them to do.  They don’t know how … and it’s not just because factory-model schools don’t teach self-management skills.  It’s also because they’re still at a stage of moral and cognitive development where self-management is really hard!  Those students of mine need (and, to their credit, frequently ask for) specific directions and specific corrections from me.  When they get off task, it’s a sign that they need more structure, more direction, more black-and-white rules … and that’s a challenge for me because I also want to help them move into a joyful learning community where they’ll act for the benefit of each other, and not just because my teacher said so.

But if I don’t meet them where they are, how can I help them move where they need to go?  Just as I completely rethought the start of my Latin I classes today – responding to a need that so many students had for more specific practice with dēclīnātiōnēs – I also need to be willing to adjust my approach to “classroom management” when some students need different kinds of approaches.

Another paradox to embrace: to help our students move toward freedom and initiative, sometimes we teachers have to start with a position of assertive authority that we’ll gradually abandon.  I’m not sure that would be true in a non-factory school, but for students who have grown accustomed to the factory model, it seems to be really important.  At the same time, though, we can’t stop with that stance of authority, and we have to use it to help our students develop their own inner authority and manage their own freedom themselves.

Isn’t it a wonderful, complex world?  What other paradoxes have you run into in your teaching and learning recently?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

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Published in: on September 14, 2012 at 9:34 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] I’m still thinking about the issues of authority and initiative that came up in Friday’s post.  I’ll have more to say tomorrow, when the experience of presenting and receiving is fresh […]


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