Stephen Brookfield’s Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher is one of those books that changed everything for me. Among other things, it shows us that we need to see our teaching through our students’ eyes. Rather than guessing or inferring, we should get that information directly from them. Brookfield offers a variety of ways to gather their formative feedback (low-stakes but highly effective snapshots directly from the students’ experiences), so we can “teach more responsively” (35) to the students actually in front of us, rather than our generic idea of “our students.”
I’d like to extend Brookfield’s advice. If we want to understand and improve our students’ learning, we should involve students directly in that effort—not simply as the subjects of our inquiry, but also as co-inquirers, fellow investigators, or partners. This proposition is not new. There is a growing body of research on why and how to partner with students, and the results of such partnerships. (Look up the work of Carmen Werder, Mick Healey, Peter Felten, Cathy Bovill, Alison Cook-Sather, among many others.)
My Teaching & Learning Inquiry co-editor Gary Poole and I recently reflected on the potential of working with students in “On the Nature of Expertise.” We argued for recognizing expertise that extends beyond our own advanced degrees. There is “developmental expertise,” which acknowledges both that “one’s expertise is continually evolving” and that some may “have more expertise than some others, but no one simply has ‘it.’” There’s also “collective expertise,” which brings together people with different areas and different levels of expertise to “form teams where expertise is fitted like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.” This broader notion of expertise expands the possibilities of what we can know and learn and accomplish.
Imagine, for example, that I want to know more about how my students learn in my literature classroom, especially during some of those moments of confusion, resistance, or discomfort. Of course, I bring a more advanced understanding of literary study and the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). But I invite a librarian colleague to join me because she’ll bring a more advanced understanding of where and how to find the best information and resources, including areas well outside of my own. I also ask my psychology colleague, who’ll bring an advanced understanding of statistics to analyze the quantitative data we collect. But I also seek out a former student—not necessarily an “A” student, though. This student will bring an advanced understanding of what it’s like to learn (and struggle with) literary study. She may also bring some of her shared experience with her classmates, offering a glimpse of what others wrestled with and how they navigated those difficulties. She may also have questions about that learning that wouldn’t occur to me, especially since it’s been 30 years since I was in her position—and even then, I wasn’t exactly the representative student because I already knew I was working toward a PhD in English. She also brings a fresher perspective on learning literature in previous years of school, and on how literature is talked about in other contexts, out of earshot of us “literature nerds.” She may also see some different patterns in the students’ work we’re analyzing. And this is just a start of the possibilities she would bring. From this project, we’ll learn far more than a team that didn’t include this former student.
Rachel Braun, our new SoTL Program Specialist at the Taylor Institute, recently attended the International Summer Institute on Students as Partners and brought back a wealth of ideas about how to facilitate these partnerships in many different contexts, from fundamental assessments of student learning, to more formalized SoTL projects, to curriculum design and review. I know this is a topic that interests many of our colleagues at the Taylor Institute and across campus. As you’ll soon see, this topic is going to be central to much of our work this year, and we invite you to consider how you can bring students as collaborators into your own contexts.