The role of the instructor

15 Sep

bunny-delivering-eggs-via-chicken_graphics-fairyAt the beginning of every course I teach, I explain my teaching philosophy to my students  and then explain why their course is set up the way it is. One of the aspects I address is how I see my role as their instructor. In short, I tell them that I see myself as a facilitator of their learning but that my expectation is that they drive their own learning. What they won’t get from me is a series of lectures which they have to memorise but what they will get is someone that supports their self-directed learning.

I started clarifying this initially because I wasn’t sure what the students assumed about how I would teach. Having been employed and researching in the field of sustainability for a number of years I had come to understand that complete knowledge and authority was not realistic in a field with such breadth and nuance – a field which by definition is itself based on the principle of continual learning. I also noted from getting to know my students that they often came to study my Master courses bringing with them just as much work and life experience as I had. This, of course, was an amazing asset to our collaborative learning course structures but I also found that I end up learning as much as they did each time I did a course (incidentally, its because I learn so much when I teach that I have called this part of the blog ‘learning for sustainability’ not ‘teaching for sustainability).
I began to be interested in what was expected in our field. It turns out that it is important to set the context for students so that they understand we are not dispensers of knowledge and wisdom but are learners continuing to learn.
Interestingly, when I analysed feedback from my students about how they had experienced their learning, there were some students who identified the lecturer as the most important personal influence, despite my earlier setting of expectations at the beginning of the course. But this is also consistent with advice for teaching in this field which notes that as facilitators of student learning we have an important role as role model to students.
Certainly there is no expectation that we must be the perfect practitioner of sustainability. Rather, our role is to model the type or reflective and inclusive learning that we are expecting our students to take on themselves. This includes being inclusive of cultural and disciplinary diversity, being challenging as well as supportive, encouraging respectful divergent views in a safe environment and encouraging students to reflect, reflect, reflect…). In short, we do our best to set up the conditions which support deep, transformative learning.

Some of the approaches I use are to ask rhetorical questions, include alternate views by telling my students I am playing devil’s advocate, asking my students questions when I don’t know, trying to provide examples of my own learning journey and encouraging students to continue to participate even though they might struggle with concepts.
My student feedback shows me that it takes time for students to see for themselves how this approach benefits their learning. At the beginning of a course I once received this feedback:

I’m paying over 3,000 dollars for this class and think I should be getting instruction from someone who knows more about the subject than I do. Having different students leading discussions and forums each week might be fun, but it’s not very instructive’.
Although not necessarily the same student, at the end of the course I was told:
Initially I was not happy with the amount of student input required versus instruction, but I’ve come to appreciate it’.

Most importantly for me, is that this facilitation of learning is what my students are likely to be doing themselves out there in the real world as practitioners for sustainability. What this style of teaching does is build their skills to practically and respectfully work as agents of change in their future work. That’s what it’s all about, in the end!