Teaching, Learning, and a Co-Creational Approach: A Teaching Philosophy in Development
“I just don’t think it’s necessary to always have to adapt to someone else’s culture and backgrounds. Shouldn’t they have to do adapt to us?” This was a question I received my first semester teaching Introduction to Communication at Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in Jamestown, North Carolina. We were discussing culture and were in the process of presenting cultural case studies in groups. Students had been given scenarios in small groups and the instructions were to discuss the issue and, based on our chapter on culture and our previous chapters, discuss how they might manage the situation. Two groups had already presented their cases and we had discussed each and the class had chimed in about ways they might have handled the situation differently. This question, though, arose after a group had discussed ways in which they might handle a situation if welcoming a business group from Saudi Arabia. When the question was asked I was a bit taken aback. I thought I had made it clear why it was important to understand cultural differences in potentially real situations. I started to reply, but sensed that several students had something to say, so I decided to ask them to explain their thoughts on the matter. This diverse classroom of students—different ages, ethnicities, cultures, and educational and socioeconomic backgrounds—guided us into an engaging discussion about culture, diversity, message development, and understanding. This was much more meaningful and in-depth than I had thought it could ideally become. It is a conversation that has stuck with me and through it I learned this: sometimes, and maybe most of the time, being a teacher means facilitating and allowing the instructor and students to create knowledge together.
My views regarding teaching to this point in time have revolved around the goal of life-long learning (learning extending beyond the classroom) and critical thinking. While I know my perspectives will continue to develop, I want students to leave my course scrutinizing the world around them and their own actions more carefully. As a student, my most rewarding experiences came from teachers and mentors who emphasized real world parallels to theories. They, and the information they conveyed, were and continue to be influential to me. Through my roles as a GTA, an instructor at GTCC, and a student of communication pedagogy, my understandings of the value of lifelong learning have begun to take shape. Lifelong learning develops through a curriculum centered on the fostering of critical thinking and providing thoughtful feedback—none of which is as rewarding as when new ideas surface from a co-creational approach to knowledge.
Encouraging critical thinking in the classroom is extremely important in creating long-lasting effects of material on students. Techniques to motivate students—such as discussions, free writing, and formal writing, help them to engage with the topic on a more personal level. Creating a classroom environment that is comfortable for discussions and in which most will want to participate is of the utmost importance in beginning the journey of critical thinking. As an instructor, providing time for students to get to know each other, particularly in groups, can be vital. This provides a comfort zone for students and allows relationships to form more quickly and even continue beyond the semester in which we have them. With the classroom culture this creates, students will talk more freely about ideas without the anxiety that peer and instructor scrutiny can cause. Therefore, by comfort, I am referring to the openness to discuss topics, even uncomfortable and controversial ones. Research in classroom culture has debated the importance of comfort and respect in the classroom, but I stand by the idea that a classroom should be both comfortable and respectful, so long as it does not indicate that students abstain from debates and controversy. My time in communication classrooms has demonstrated just how effective a comfortable and lively classroom can be.
Employing opportunities to wrestle with theories and topics without the concern that formal assignments present can increase the students’ understanding and willingness to think through an idea. Free writing, particularly in the form of journaling, provides them with just that. It has been my experience as a student that the reduced pressure of some form of journaling can help a topic become understood because there is not a concern for being right or wrong. In a News Analysis course, for example, my professor had us keep “news journals.” We used these to analyze different stories to which we were exposed and apply theories discussed in the class. We were able to see theories as they applied to real-world situations and work through their meanings. These were all ideas and applications that could later be used in a formal writing, oral assignment, or even a classroom debate. Whether using journals to find applications of a theory in their own worlds or to reflect on presentations, they are an extremely useful tool to promote critical thinking. In fact, I do not think I have ever watched a news segment or read the newspaper the same since my experience in that News Analysis course. As an instructor in Introduction to Communication I have found that providing journaling opportunities for students has been a welcome and an effective piece that allows students to engage with the material and explore how the material directly impacts them. Further, in all of my classes I take full advantage of the opportunities in both the face-to-face and online portions of the classroom to engage students with short activities in groups and dyads. These interactions and discussions jump start new ideas and thoughts. Again, they explore the material without the stress of a formal grade, allowing free interaction, questions, and a real-world application. It is my hope that I am offering my students a practical method of learning in the same way it was provided to me in the News Analysis course. When current or former students tell me they have used methods from our communication material, such as conflict management, and found it successful, I feel encouraged that my goal of providing a learning centered environment has been met. My goal now is to ensure that all my students have the opportunity to experience this successful use of material.
Along with the informal activities and writing, formal projects are also a necessary part of a curriculum I will continue to implement to foster critical thinking skills. When grappling with theory, a research paper in which students apply a real-world scenario to a theory will provide them with the opportunity to immerse themselves in subjects and to have a sense of closure with the subject or course. For example, I call this type of paper a final “cultural analysis paper” in my Introduction to Interpersonal Communication course. While discussions and informal writing can jump start ideas and thinking, a larger project or paper is needed to explore important topics more fully. This allows the class to come full circle for students and, if done well, can impact the rest of their school careers and the way they understand and explain the world around them. However, in order to allow that to happen, feedback from the instructor must be clear, honest, and thoughtful.
A supremely important component of effective teaching is providing feedback that is both critical and thoughtful. Students are more open to learning when the instructor demonstrates that what the students think and do is important. As an instructor, I want my students to know that I care for them and am concerned with their success. I try my best to be available for them when they need and to be open to ideas, concerns, and thinking through problems with them. It is natural for me to be gentle in my interactions with students, but they still know what needs to be done. With feedback it should be clear that the instructor has thoroughly reviewed the assignment. In Public Speaking I find that trying to provide an equal amount of positive feedback and aspects to improve upon has been successful. When there are too many positive comments, students end up more confused about why they may have received any other grade than an “A”. If there are too many critical comments, students may feel discouraged. Balancing feedback, both formal and informal, is important and something I will continue to work on with my students. If the instructor puts in the time and effort, then students seem more willing to take suggestions and engage with the material.
Lifelong learning can be achieved through involvement in a class in which the students and instructor actively discuss material together first, then subsequently apply it with individual tasks. The promotion of critical thinking and thoughtful feedback in my classroom will lead students to use skills elsewhere. Whether they think about the world in a new way by applying learned theories or they use the skills emphasized in the course to be more successful later in life, lifelong learning can occur. Fostering a comfortable classroom environment in which students can express ideas, think through theories, and know that the instructor is there for them along the way, is necessary to ensure this is achieved.
“…Shouldn’t they have to do adapt to us?” I’ll let the students debate that and I’ll guide their talk, ask more questions, and we will find the answers together.