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Relections on openness and structure in education

Paul Grobstein's picture

The following was written by Bharath Vallabha, following a session on emergent pedagogy in a summer session for K-12 teachers in which Bharath participated.  It is relevant a well to current discussions of the Evolving Systems group about its own organization and, more generally, to issues of human community organization generally. 


I. Three Aims in Education

Here are three aims for a classroom:

  1.     to provide structure and flexibility for each student
  2.     to provide individual and social learning for each student
  3.     to provide a space for teaching and learning for both the teacher and the students

Imagine if one was teaching a student just one on one. From the student’s perspective, what would be the best case scenario? Given the assumption that there is some issue regarding which the student would be excited to think and learn about, the teacher would help make that issue explicit for the student so that the student can pursue it. In this way, the teacher would be flexible to the needs and interests of the student. Once the teacher and the student have discovered some issues which really interest the student, the teacher helps the student be focused on making progress on those issues by thinking with them, suggesting resources, questioning assumptions, etc. In this way, the teacher helps provide a structure for the student. The structure is crucial to make progress but ultimately it isn’t the last word. There is no telling where the student’s passions will go and what issues might come to the surface. So though the teacher doesn’t allow the student to pursue every wild thought that comes to her (that wouldn’t be thinking but only drifting) and so provides structure in this way, the teacher is also ideally very attuned to the student and so doesn’t dictate to the student what the structure should be. In this way, the structure is supplanted with flexibility again, and flexibility with structure, and so on. We can call this the oscillation of flexibility and structure.

There is a similar oscillation when one is teaching multiple students at the same time. We can call this the oscillation of the individual and the social. Sometimes the student benefits from thinking by herself or just with the teacher. This helps her be in her own space, and either figure out her interests or build the structure to work on her interests. But a person working on something by themselves only gets so far being by themselves. Often in order to be infused with energy and ideas, one has to listen to other people’s perspectives on the issues one is interested in and also other people’s perspectives on very different issues. Therefore if the student is engaged only individually with the teacher, the student will miss out on the other perspectives essential to her own development. At this point the student needs the social dimension of the classroom. When the student is at a stage to gain by listening to and talking with others, she enjoys and revels in group thinking even if she can’t make explicit how exactly the communal dialogue is helping her; she might simply say, “that was fun” and that is an indication that she is not in a space of only individual processing. So the individual learning must be complemented with social learning, and vice versa.

There is a third oscillation which both the students and the teacher partake in, which we can call the oscillation of teaching and learning. If the teacher is always the moderator or the dispenser of information and the student always the person being helped, inevitably boredom will fill the space between them. Without change there cannot be learning. I suspect a good teacher is not one who is so knowledgeable that she is an open fount of wisdom of which the students never tire. More likely, a good teacher often unconsciously reciprocates the roles with the students, and so learns from them and gives them an opportunity to teach the teacher and the other students. Thus a good teacher doesn’t hesitate to reverse the channel of flow and to learn from the students. She does this for two reasons. First, reversing the flow gives the students yet another perspective on the issues they are considering, now the perspective of someone in the know, and that helps them emotionally and intellectually. Second, reversing the flow makes the teaching continually interesting and exciting to the teacher. Teaching now is not a boring repetition of the stale, true facts; it is not just the recourse of those who cannot be at the forefront and lead the charge on the acquisition of knowledge. To the contrary, teaching is an essential way to gain knowledge and new perspectives from the students, who are a body of people emotionally committed to the conversation because they have the time, need and passion to push themselves and question everything anew. Thus to be committed to teaching is to tap into the revolutionary zeal and arrogance of the young who can feel up to any task. The good teacher doesn’t hesitate to access this rich reservoir and happily concedes in return the stifling mantle of expertise. Likewise, a good student doesn’t mind sometimes taking charge and leading the conversation, excited to teach even the teacher a thing or two. In this way, in a wonderful classroom, the teacher and the students oscillate between teaching and learning.

II. The One Story Model

When we think about these three oscillations, we can easily see that some classroom settings are inadequate.

In a context where a teacher stands up and lectures, propounding truths to the students, there is none of the three oscillations; call this the one story model. In the one story model there is no oscillation between flexibility and structure, because all the students get all the time is structure and more structure. Only the students for whom the structure is natural and fun, for whom the structure comes with in built flexibility, do well in the class, get top grades and might go on to study the subject further. The rest of the students leave the class broken down by the sense of their stupidity regarding the subject, accepting it as a fact and conceding the subject to others deemed more fit for it. The sense that one can study anything, be anything and do anything is warped, and evaluative judgments (“She is great at X, I am bad at it”) are taken as natural facts on a par with having two hands and two legs.

Similarly, in the one story model, there is no oscillation between the individual and the social, for even though the classroom is a social gathering, the interaction is simply one on one between the teacher and each of the students. There are no frequent changes in perspective and few new insights generated amongst the students, and so in such a class students feel everything is predictable a couple of weeks into the semester. The struggling students are forced to turn for help to the teacher and the students with the good grades, in both cases taking the help at the cost of giving up following the passions within themselves regarding the subject.

And on the one story model, there is certainly no oscillation between teaching and learning, since the classroom is a one way street of education.

III. The Infinite Stories Model

Classrooms where the teacher abandons lecturing or setting guidelines and constantly lets a thousand flowers bloom fares no better; call this the infinite stories model. In the infinite stories model, there is no oscillation between flexibility and structure, because all the students get all the time is flexibility. At first the flexibility is invigorating, novel, risky and amazing; the students are thrilled that the classroom is not the restrictive environment of the one story model, and feel ready to go on new adventures. Soon however the excitement turns to boredom and disappointment. For a student is excited to the extent that she can pursue her interests and passions. And even if she doesn’t recognize it, she feels the need for structure to pursue her interests. The flexibility of the classroom allows the student to focus on the areas of the subject that excite her. But the teacher, intent on not imposing her views on the student, lets the student pursue every thought and idea she has, and this leads the student to dead ends and desert landscapes. Soon the students feel bored with the lack of progress. If confident, the student turns against the teacher and questions the teacher’s judgment and her interest in helping the student. If unconfident, the students feel bad that she is reciprocating the teacher’s kind intentions and patience with her underdeveloped views, and tries to figure out what the teacher might want her to do as a way to not disappoint the teacher yet again.

The infinite stories model also doesn’t allow for oscillation between the individual and the social. For when every story is ok and every comment is perfect, it cuts students off from each other. A conversation requires pursuit of a topic, which requires a communal attempt to hold on to good points and set aside bad points. Good conversation, like good thinking, requires discrimination of ideas, which is not the same as discriminating between people. But when students think they should let an infinite stories bloom, they often misinterpret this as accepting in some sense every comment another student makes. They think that denying any idea a person floats is to deny that person, and so to deny the idea is to discriminate against that person. This sensitivity creates an atmosphere of fragility, where everyone fears to criticize others lest they seem insensitive and close minded, and ultimately the spirit of a safe space for exploring ideas where ever they go is lost.

Lastly, the infinite stories model also doesn’t allow for the oscillation between teaching and learning, because the equivalence of all ideas makes the concept of teaching itself incoherent. The teacher and the students are both bored; the teacher because ultimately she is reduced to a traffic cop constantly reminding the students that all points of view should be respected, and the students because they lose respect and awe for the classroom and treat it as no different from hanging out with their friends.

The one story model and the infinite story model are extremes, and perhaps no classroom exactly fits either one. But as I look back on my education, I certainly see some classes veering towards one extreme and others veering towards the other extreme. And as with most extremes, the justification for each is an uncritical focus on avoiding the other extreme. Proponents of the one story model might acknowledge its short comings, but accept it nonetheless because the dreaded infinite story model is to be avoided at any cost. Similarly for the proponents of the infinite story model.

In relation to emergent pedagogy, it is important to see that emergent pedagogy is not and need not be the infinite stories model. It is tempting to equate the two if one equates emergence with lack of constraints. But this is not so. In an emergent conversation one cannot get up and beat up the other person, and say in defense that she was just following her instincts and that everyone should now be interested in where the conversation leads. For if people are allowed to hit each other, the conversation doesn’t go anywhere; it ends or it degenerates into a fight. Emergence can’t be an excuse for letting anything go. Similarly, in an emergent conversation one cannot articulate just any old thought that comes to one’s mouth. The fact that there is a conversation taking place means that each person has to be reflective and assess their own thoughts as well as the thoughts of others. Emergent conversation requires thoughtful participation, not mindless participation. How can there be thoughtful participation? That is where the constraints or guidelines come in. The key is to think of some constraints which can help a fruitful and multi-dimensional conversation to emerge, and which can thereby avoid the pits falls of the one story model and the infinite stories model.

IV. The Balance of Stories Model

Here is a possible way to avoid the two extremes. Perhaps the following is utopian and is not realizable given the contingencies of a classroom. But still, it is helpful to have an ideal in mind to see how a classroom might achieve the three aims noted at the outset. We can call this the balance of stories model.

On the balance of stories model, the readings and the perspective of the teacher provide an initial story for the class. Call this the base story. The teacher lays out the base story as a way of introducing the subject to the students and to have a common vocabulary amongst the teacher and the students. The base story will clearly depend on the teacher’s background and interests; there is no one base story any more than there is one way to teach any given class. As long as the teacher is not simply incorporating her favorite views into the base story and thereby giving a false sense of the intellectual landscape, the teacher can be explicit with the students that the base story is told from the teacher’s perspective.

The main criterion for the base story is not how much it approximates to the truth nor how well it captures every possible view in the literature. The main criterion is that it will touch the imagination of each student in the class and give each student an access to the subject matter in a way which resonates with her. The function of the base story is thus to provide a framework which can incorporate and acknowledge the interest and passions of each student. Given the diversity of students in a classroom, the base story has to be sufficiently open and diverse that no student will find their voice unrepresented or think that the base story captures all the possible options. The aim to capture varied views in the literature is an excellent aim, but it is not an end in itself. It is normally helpful because the more varied the base story, the more likely it is that some part of the story will resonate with each student.

The fact that there is a base story which helps structure the class distinguishes the balance of stories model from the infinite stories model. But the balance of stories model differs from the one story model as well, because the base story is not the ultimate story in the class. The base story is only a way to initially connect a student to the subject and to other students.

The task of the teacher is to be attentive to how each student is interacting with the base story and which thoughts and feelings are most exciting for the student in relating to it. This enables the teacher to help highlight with the student the thoughts which the student might like to pursue and so help the student self-consciously relate to the readings and discussion through what most excites her. With this successful two step from structure to flexibility (base story to possible interests of the student) and flexibility to structure (the interests which the student would like to focus on), the class becomes a personal resource to the student instead of being an open ended forum in which the student doesn’t know what she is looking for. Now when the student does the reading or listens to other students, she has a better sense of the perspective from which she is reading and listening and of what she hopes to get out of it. Normally if even this much can be accomplished, the class will be on the path of success. For by helping the student come to the texts in her own terms and using the texts to focus on some questions of interest to her, the teacher would have helped the student build a personalized scaffolding to the structures of inquiry which can serve the student as a constant aid.

We are now part way into our ideal scenario (or one possible ideal scenario). Suppose each student has found some ideas and questions which really speak to them, and in this way have experienced some oscillation of flexibility and structure. In order to help the student pursue these questions, the teacher can think and talk together with the student. But ultimately, talking to only the teacher about her interests will be unsatisfactory to the student, for the multiplicity of perspectives which makes progress possible would still be missing. This is where the role of the classroom discussions comes in.

One role for classroom discussion is to help the students understand the base story and to help them determine which parts of it they would like to explore. Another role is as a space for comparing and contrasting the issues and perspectives amongst the students. When students interact with each other towards the beginning of class the most they can do is respond to ideas but not to people. When friends discuss an issue the conversation is stirring in part because the conversation is not just about ideas but about the two people as people, the two people as they know each other. An idea discussed with a friend feels different from an idea discussed with a stranger, for the idea discussed with the friend takes on the meaning and the gravity of the interpersonal relationship between the two people. A deeper relation to a person makes the ideas discussed with them fuller, deeper and more nuanced. This is how students cannot relate to ideas at the beginning of class. Since the other students are for the most part strangers to them, the most they can do is relate to the ideas disembodied from the personalities and trajectories of the people articulating them.

As students start to develop their own ideas and interests, they start to embody those passions more. So a task for the teacher in the classroom is to help students relate to each other as the more nuanced, full-blooded thinkers they are developing into. One way to do this is to use the discussions as a space for the students to relate to each other the perspectives they are developing. At this point the base story starts to recede into the background; or at any rate, the base story is no longer needed in the same way because the students themselves are starting to identify with some of the views in the base story. What is needed now is not to bludgeon the students with narratives of how others, the professionals, pursue some view or the other. Rather, what is needed is to help the students continue the personal exploration of their ideas by having them converse with each other, and to see the others occupying different perspectives than oneself. Just as in her own thinking a student starts with vague ideas and through effort weaves those ideas into her personal narrative and so makes them meaningful, so too in a group discussion students start with vague ideas of others and through effort learn to see those ideas as parts of the deeper and more meaningful narratives of the other students. A classroom discussion which grows in this way builds a rich, communicative fabric amongst the students, and the intellectual discussions have the personal element of human to human interaction.

As the students develop their interests in the subject and bring this to bear in group conversations, it is again important that every tangent of the conversation is not pursued. A student learns best only when she feels her interests are being addressed. Though she might be kind and considerate for a limited time in listening to other’s interests which are disconnected from her interests, in time she will grow weary of such kindness and will resent giving up her own growth for it. So just as a teacher must balance structure and flexibility in an individual student’s learning, so too the teacher has to balance structure and flexibility in a group discussion. If the teacher focuses on a couple of student’s interests and emphasizes them at the cost of ignoring other student’ interests, a cohesive and transformative framework of inter-personal discussion will not emerge. And if the teacher lets it be the case that every student’s interests are different from every other student’s interests, then a helpful group dynamic will again not emerge.

The key is for the teacher to coordinate the student’s individual learning with the group discussion learning. The teacher must allow for enough flexibility in the subject matter so that each student can find what most interests them in the topic. But the teacher must balance this with the fact that a excessive diversity of interests amongst the students will hurt their learning oppurtunities when it comes to engaging with each other. So the teacher can’t focus only on the base story all the time because that will curtail the students developing their own interests in the subject. But the teacher also can’t let every student depart wildly from the base story because then the students will find chasms between them when they try to share their interests with each other. Thus as the class develops the teacher must discover through experimentation which interests and the number of interests which best work for the particular dynamic of students she is dealing with. This is the ‘balance of stories’ part of the balance of stories model. In this way on this model there will be the oscillation between structure and flexibility, as well as the oscillation between the individual and the social.

If the class develops in the way sketched above, then the oscillation between teaching and learning will also take place. As students develop their own perspectives and interests on a subject, and as students are able to engage meaningfully with each other in light of those emerging perspectives and interests, the relation between the teacher and the students grows as well. No longer is the teacher the sole dispenser of wisdom, who has to use the base story as a bible to educate the uninitiated and simple-minded students. Instead, as the students develop their own perspectives on the subject and are able to talk to each other as collaborators on a common though multi-varied journey, the teacher and the students becomes more like collogues, more like friends, and more like fellow people engaged in a common pursuit of knowledge and a good life. The classroom becomes for the teacher less a place where one has to leave one’s research to go and more a place where the teacher’s interests are themselves challenged and addressed by the alternate perspectives of the students. And the teacher doesn’t have to feel the pressure of being the students’ gateway to the enshrined knowledge of the culture, for now the teacher can relate to the classroom as her own gateway of knowledge and the students as her instructors. Likewise, the classroom becomes for the students a place where they are recognized not simply as students or as people-to-be but genuinely as people with interesting perspectives and ideas which can be shared and can help others. The feeling that one’s ideas do matter and can help others is a great motivator, and when a student sees the teacher and the other students being benefitted by her ideas, that only spurs her on to think more and to be more communal.

We can now see better why the one story model and the infinite stories model are unsatisfactory. The one story model draws a line in the sand between the teacher and the student, and constantly reenforces the image that the teacher is fully formed and complete, whereas the student is only an inexperienced youth and in that regard inadequate. The teacher and the students can accept this line in the sand for a limited time and acknowledge with due humility their situations as those in the know regarding the subject and those not in the know. But when the line is treated as a permanent demarcator of the nature of the two parties, both sides chafe at being boxed in.

The infinite stories model has the converse problem. It draws no line in the sand and from the beginning the teacher and the students are treated as equals. At the beginning the students might relish their acknowledgement as equals, but in time their desire to learn overcomes even desire to be treated as equals. They know that they are students and are in the class to learn and to be taught, and so after a while they experience the lack of a line between the teacher and them not as freeing but rather as indicative of the poor quailty of the class.
The balance of stories model avoids both extremes and aims to keep alive throughout the class the exictement and openess with which the teacher and the students come to it. It draws a line in the sand at the beginning of the class with the teacher presenting the base story to the students. But unlike the other models, it acknowledges that the classroom is ultimately a place of change, transformation and growth, and that a good class is one which changes through that development. Thus through the oscillations between structure and flexibility, the individual and the social, and teaching and learning, the teachers and the students together erase the line in the sand as the class proceeds. They grow together because they grow from being on separate sides of the line to occupying a common space which incorporates and challenges every one, each of the students and the teacher alike.




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