Flipped Authority: How Giving Students The Right To Challenge You Changes Their Attitude Towards Learning

January 28th, 2014 No Comments Features

Student teachers

For 30 years, starting in the spring of 1977, Steven Strogatz maintained an occasional correspondence with his high school calculus teacher, Don Joffray. Although they both experienced great changes in their lives during this time, Strogatz and Joffray hardly mentioned personal matters, focusing almost entirely on math. And yet their relationship was not “professional” in the usual sense of the word.

Strogatz shares many of the letters he exchanged with his old teacher, and explains what led him finally to try to learn more about the man he’d hardly known for so many years, in his book, The Calculus of Friendship. Now the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, Strogatz discussed his relationship with Joffray in a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed:

“Mr. Joffray made me feel like I could teach him. That was an incredible gift because more than anything else I wanted to be a math teacher. At a time before I had any students, he was my student. In later years he’d write to me asking for advice about how to solve a problem that had stumped him, typically a question raised by one of his advanced students.”

The relationship between Strogatz and Joffray illustrates a “blurring of the borders” rarely witnessed in the classroom and frequently ignored in educational research. The traditional teacher-pupil dynamic has exuded an air of hierarchy for centuries, and has operated without reform or challenge – until now.

The idea that experienced academics are better placed to make judgments on student learning is hopelessly old-fashioned, says Emily Collins, student engagement coordinator at Reading University’s student union.

“That’s not how things are any more. It has to be about trying to keep up with the generation coming into higher education. We move so fast now. The idea of “teacher knows best’ is looking back to a time when teachers did know best, and if that happens the quality of higher education will be diminished.”

Today, by the time students enter middle school, they are aware of the various ways to acquire knowledge (Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, etc.) and teachers are usually “not your best source.” Where teachers once derived authority from knowledge, they must now derive it from facilitation: guiding discussions, consolidating resources, and inspiring and empowering lifelong learners.

Flipped authority drives learner-centered instruction because students must take responsibility for their own learning. Instructors are often faced with students who are more interested in the course because they have some say in the design or implementation of the course. The students take ownership over their learning and gain confidence as they realize they are members of a learning community that thrives on communication, interaction, co-construction of knowledge, and, most importantly, respect.

They are honored for the knowledge they bring to class and have a say on how their knowledge can shape the course. They are no longer viewed as empty vessels waiting to be filled by the expert instructor. This empowerment model for education is ultimately a win-win for both instructors and learners.

Of course, note that we are talking about flipped authority to an extent. Clearly, there are elements of the course design or the syllabus over which the instructor must retain control. Some situational factors should also be considered when deciding how much control you can realistically share with your students, including class size, students’ background knowledge for the course, level of the students (e.g. undergraduate vs. graduate), etc. Obviously, a 200 person Freshman Intro to Physics course would have a much different power sharing dynamic than a 16 person graduate course in the College of Education.

The point is that decisions made by the instructor should be guided by student input. The less power we share, the more dependent and disengaged our students may become. If we increase student responsibility for learning through power sharing a shifted teacher role, students (reluctantly at first) will have increased interest in the topics and in the notion of co-creating knowledge and negotiating meaning with peers and instructors.

A Moral Dilemma

The task of sharing authority with your students is easier imagined than achieved, however, especially when moral decisions are at stake.

Authority may be monopolized by teachers or shared with students. Teachers may exert it sometimes, but not at other times – more when the matter is crucial, when there is a general consensus, and when the students are younger.

“However, students will not be kept in the dark about the nature of the issue and the extent to which diverse opinions will genuinely be given a hearing,” writes Joan F. Goodman for Education Week. “They will know that at least in some matters their decisions will be honored, in others they will be heard, and in others they will have to submit to the teacher’s judgment.”

How can a teacher genuinely endow students with authority to find their own answers and formulate their own convictions while maintaining fairness? Exactly how much moral authority over students should teachers exert?

If we could rank rights and wrongs from most to least critical (or ambiguous), says Goodman, we would then be in a good position to establish a paradigm that matched degrees of teacher authority against the relative centrality of a value, with students having a louder voice on the more negotiable issues.

“Such scaling, however, is impossible because of the dissent among us,” she writes. “While at the extremes we may approach agreement, school policies and rules touch on many values that fall between the extremes; surrounding these there is considerable discordance, both among teachers themselves and between schools and families.”

Even at the extremes, there can be dissension. Take plagiarism. While many would adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward plagiarism, others think there are circumstances where it is entirely appropriate to repurpose existing materials for one’s own use.

Furthermore, there are rules that have little to no moral consequence – group presentation assignments, for example – yet a teacher may consider them sufficiently critical to her instruction that she will not want to take into account any contrary views.

Still, Goodman urges, it needs to be acknowledged that if students are to become critical thinkers, tolerant of competing interests and loyalties, and strong independent moral agents, they must be active participants in moral decisions.

The same can be said for decisions regarding course structure, assessment, and management.

What Works in Practice

In a recent study entitled “Negotiating authority through jointly constructing the course curriculum,’ researchers at James Madison University in Virginia examined how authority was negotiated in an undergraduate teacher education course in which the lead researcher – as the teacher of the course – involved students in actively determining the content, method, and assessment of the course.

The findings suggested that constructing relations of mutual interdependence, deriving legitimacy from mutually recognized sources, and communicating about the problem rather than the people succeeded in creating a balance of power between teacher and student.

Another study examined the benefits of negotiating authority through cultivating a classroom community of inquiry and found similar results.

Savage (1999) was one of the first to divide authority into the five categories of legitimate authority, reward authority, coercive authority, expert authority, and referent authority. These five breeds of authority can be further divided into two main categories: positional and personal. The first three constitute positional, and the last two constitute personal. Personal authority, which is based upon merit and respect, is the most desirable type of authority for teachers and students alike.

Such insights are important for helping future teachers explore alternatives to conventional teaching methods while accounting for the complexity of learning.

Below are some of the primary authority-sharing techniques backed by the latest research:

  1. Teach democratically. Involve students in actively determining the content, method, and assessment of each course. Workshop class policies and provide samples of assignments for students to either choose from or modify.
  2. Cultivate a community of inquiry. Create an environment that supports the questioning of authority.
  3. Promote personal authority. Based on merit and respect – not on reward, coercion, or assumption.
  4. Construct relations of mutual interdependence. Be sure you rely on your students’ feedback as much as they rely on yours.
  5. Derive legitimacy from mutually recognized sources. Be sure the “right” answer or the most trusted source on a subject is not simply what you say it is, but what your students – and the rest of the academic community – say it is too.
  6. Communicate about the problem, not the people. Behavioral issues don’t have to get out of hand. Make students feel responsible for solving a problem, not ashamed for disobeying the rules.
  7. Cultivate open communication through collaborative dialogue. When everyone is given equal opportunity to assume a position of power, it is easier to achieve a balance of authority in the classroom.
  8. Peer Recognition. At the end of a unit or at the end of a week, month, or semester, have students give recognition to each other.
  9. Listen, even if you don’t agree. Hold class meetings, respond to student journal entries, set up a suggestion box, take class evaluations seriously.
  10. Encourage meaningful use of technology. Don’t be scared to let your students teach you a thing or two about technology.

“What I now realize was amazing about Mr. Joffray’s teaching was the way he motivated his students,” says Strogatz. “He never competed with us or tried to prove how smart he was. On the contrary, he openly revered his students, past and present, almost to the point of hero worship. He made us want to show him our little insights and discoveries, and he took tremendous pleasure in them.

“This wasn’t a pedagogical gimmick. He was an amateur in the truest sense, someone who loved math and the challenge of understanding it. Just asking a good question was enough to earn you a spot in his pantheon.”

What other ways can we find to inspire authority and respect in our students?

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Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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