Authority and Initiative, I

If you’re reading this post “live” on the day of publication, it’s a staff development day in my face-to-face teaching world.  I’ll be spending the morning delivering a session to my fellow Latin teachers about Web 2.0 tools and interpretive communication, and I’ll spend the afternoon receiving information delivered by others about a new formative assessment tool and some procedural nuts and bolts.

I say delivering and receiving rather than teaching and learning because, in both cases, the presenters (me and some fellow language teachers in the morning, colleagues at school in the afternoon) won’t exactly be functioning as teachers.  We didn’t choose the content; we didn’t develop the learning goals; we didn’t develop the materials; we didn’t develop the assessments; and we won’t be scoring the assessments or (as far as I know) looking at any assessment data that’s generated.  I’m sure that some learning will happen in both sets of sessions, and I know some important information will be delivered.

But it’s a strange feeling – a very different feeling from what typically happens in my face-to-face classes or even in the online staff-development course, where I didn’t create the learning materials but am intimately involved in participants’ responses to them.  This feels much more impersonal and industrial.  And maybe that’s why I hit the snooze button on my alarm clock this morning – the first time all year that I haven’t gotten up before the alarm went off.

So 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 in my mind – but I’ve been both a presenter and a receiver before, and as I reviewed the material I’m supposed to present, I kept thinking about the odd ways that presenters’ authority and receivers’ initiative are redefined when the presenter functions as someone else’s mouthpiece.  It’s a challenging role, and I have new sympathy for my colleagues who work in places – and teach subjects – where scripted curricula are the norm.

Authority and initiative also came to mind when I found this blog post and started this Google+ thread about ways that university faculty are pushing back against the phenomenon of MOOCs.  When I first read the post, I really focused on what Dominik Lukeš says about the reality vs. the idealized image of face-to-face education. But now I’m focused on the idea that (some) resistance to MOOCs might about holding onto a dying form of teaching authority – teacher/lecturer/professor as sole source of scarce knowledge, which eager students ought to accept gratefully and unquestioningly.  In that structure, certain forms of initiative by learners were welcomed – they could raise their hands and ask questions, or talk to each other in the hallway between classes, or (as Lukeš notes) visit the professor during his/her office hours – but others weren’t even imaginable.  Beginning students, novices, would never dare to seek knowledge on their own in an “important” area – but that’s exactly what a MOOC participant does.

MOOCs don’t necessarily challenge the authority – initiative paradigm head-on, but because they’re free – no cost to participate and no obligation to finish – do they implicitly shift the balance of power even when they’re built around very conservative forms of pedagogy?  Are the more conservative MOOCs (the ones from Coursera and Udacity with lecture videos and quizzes and “grades”) actually a greater threat to the authority – initiative paradigm precisely because they’re closer in form to what “most people” expect from a college course?

I don’t know.  But it’s interesting that two very different challenges to the authority – initiative paradigm are on my mind today.

I also don’t know whether my colleagues like or dislike the presenter – receiver model of professional development, just as I don’t know how many MOOC participants are thinking about how the courses challenge our existing model of teaching authority.  Teachers like to complain about professional development classes, but sometimes I wonder whether the complaints themselves are an important part of the ritual and the paradigm.  My colleagues who complain the most about presenter – receiver style sessions are sometimes (but not always) the least likely to build a PLN, participate in a Twitter chat, or pursue other forms of self-directed professional learning.

We’ll see if the sessions themselves bring any clarity.  And we’ll see what happens when authority and initiative become important again in interactions with my students on Tuesday.  One of the Latin I classes had some serious issues with engagement in the product they were making near the end of the week, and I think it’s partly because I have yet to find the blend of assertive authority and release that they need to fully embrace the initiative and autonomy they crave.

Where do you see issues of authority and initiative today?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

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Published in: on September 17, 2012 at 9:55 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] goodness! When I sat down to write my first draft of yesterday’s post on a peaceful Sunday afternoon, and even when I published the final version yesterday morning, I […]


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