How do I foster a learning community in a meaningful way? – A reflection

EDUC 806
Simon Fraser University – Faculty of Education
MEd Post-Secondary, VCC Cohort
Selected Problems in Higher Education
Professor: Dr. Doug Mauger
Student: Kathryn Truant
October 5, 2020

Objective:

To think that education can be put under control denies the fact that the world is not simply at our disposal. It denies the fact that other human beings have their own ways of being and thinking, their own reasons and motivations that may well be very different from ours (Biesta, 2013, p. 3).

I introduced myself to Professor Gert Biesta via email in February of 2020. I reached out to him because I required clarification of his philosophies on education, specifically his arguments on ‘learning’. I was assigned Dr. Biesta’s chapter as a required reading in the first semester of my MEd program, and I was confounded. His entire approach to education caught me completely off guard, and his views on the discourse, purpose, and result of learning cannot be summed up in an assignment that is restricted to a maximum of 1000 words. But, I need to get this ‘off my chest,’ and this is a reflective assignment, so I am going to be reflective[1].

I am relieved that I have an opportunity to reflect on Dr. Biesta’s argument as it relates to this course. He responded,

I’ve tried to show the importance of teaching, and particularly of the experience of ‘being taught’ or ‘receiving a teaching’ – which is about ‘things’ that come to us, whether we want that or not, intend that or not, like it or not (G. Biesta, personal communication, February 17, 2020).

I am grateful for this feedback. I am still not completely clear in what Biesta is trying to tell me – to tell all of us, but I believe it has a lot (and possibly everything) to do with community[2].

Reflective:

My view on teaching is focused on learning (a learner-centred approach was at the core of my undergrad in adult education). Okanagan College (where I am a clinical instructor in the dental assisting program) prides itself on being a learner-centred institution (Okanagan College, 2020, para. 6). So, when I read Biesta’s views, I was perplexed. He was screaming at me through his words on the page: it is not about the learners! It is about you sharing what you know. Sharing what you know.

Biesta’s opening quote continues,

To wish all this away is a denial of the fact that what and who are other to us are precisely that: other. It thus exemplifies a form of magical thinking in which the world only exists as a projection of our own mind and our own desires (2013, p. 3).

I relate to Dr. Biesta’s explanation of ‘otherness,’ and how crucial this observation is to the formation of community. We all have our own unique perspectives and experiences to contribute, whether it be in the classroom as an instructor or as a student (albeit as an instructor, I am somewhat confined by curriculum and outcomes). Carl Rogers’, Freedom to Learn (1969) was a groundbreaking argument for the student-centred or self-directed approach to learning. But, Rogers was also a proponent for community.

Interpretive:

Rogers explains in chapter nine, ‘A Revolutionary Program for Graduate Education,’ the following points (please excuse the gender specifications; this was 1969 after all). Keep in mind that I do not list all of Roger’s points – I only emphasize the points that support my argument:

Thus we could say that the purpose of the whole program is to provide a situation  which:

  • will give the student a participative role in forming and building the whole graduate program of which he is a part;
  • will provide close, human, communicative interaction between real persons – student and student, student and faculty, faculty and student
  • will develop the student as a self-disciplined and critical learner able to evaluate his own contributions as well as those of others. Thus the student will work, not for the approval of others, but in terms of his own socialized and self-actualizing purposes (pp. 190-191).

I am going to get existential in my interpretive process: As an educator, how do I compare (and coexist, and exert) my own experiential truths with the experiential truths of others? Further, how do other people’s experiences affect me in their direct ways (actions) and indirect ways (words)?[3] I am grasping at meaning and looking for support. Contemporary learning theorist Sharan Merriam expounds, “acknowledging and understanding other systems of knowing and learning expands our own repertoire and hopefully effectiveness as adult educators” (2017, p. 92). A learning community is not about me trying to persuade others to my own ways, opinions, and experiences; it is about the realization that I am not the ‘be all,’ and ‘end all’ in my domain, and that ‘other’ individuals will (most likely) enlighten me.

But, what if I am an introvert? (I am not shy or afraid; I simply do not choose to persuade or to argue or to enlighten those who cannot hear any other voice besides their own – I am going into dark terrain here, but do not worry, it is only a brief interlude). In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain explains, “I have seen firsthand how difficult it is for introverts to take stock of their own talents, and how powerful it is when they finally do” (2013, p. 7)[4].

Decisional:

I am entering the decisional phase of this reflection. How do I foster community? I believe that online academic forums which are assigned to build community, highlight all voices in the class (and introduce the strengths of all learners – including the introverts!). I am not going to ‘out’ anyone, but there are those in this cohort who I do not ‘get’ to hear (much) from in class (face to face) or in synchronous online discussion, and what they contribute is equally as important as those who are more comfortable in an open arena for discussion.

It is important for me to give all my students time to ponder responses, to do research and provide relevant feedback. An asynchronous online forum (that is well-managed) affords a voice to all learners (introverts and extroverts alike) because we are granted our space – space to work solitarily while coexisting in a collaborative way. Cain expands on this: “we fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all on its own,” and academics “who work together electronically from different physical locations, tend to produce research that is far more influential than those either working alone or collaborating face-to face” (201, p. 89). As challenging as it is to have to listen to and participate in ‘other’ people’s points of view (without sentiment or judgement), this is a ‘Biesta’ moment for me[5].


Footnotes:

[1] I am going off on a tangent here. I do not think that reflective practices (necessarily) need to be weighted academic assignments in graduate studies. I am simply reflecting. I like having a voice and an opinion and as such, the fact that I am sharing my personal (and professional) reflections at this stage of my scholarly journey affords me the freedom to say what I want: free from judgement, grades, and feedback on my written thoughts (in relation to my life experiences, and in consequence of my advancing age) – my thoughts are typically very close to me. I would like to stress that I appreciate and respect feedback (formal and informal) on academic pursuits (I am differentiating here between a reflection and a research paper). I am, after all, a lifelong learner, but I am also an introvert, and as such, I have had to struggle with having a voice (an active opine). In other words, please do not confuse my aversion to judgments on my thoughts to judgement on my prose; I promise the reader that I will follow the ORID model.

[2] When I publicly reflect, I feel the need to hold back. Am I part of the conversation? Do I fit in? Do my thoughts matter? Reflections are supposed to be a self-affirming inventory of my own interpretations. So, what does it matter what I say, provided I say it logically, concisely, and in APA format? It is important for the reader to note (and I reiterate) that I still hold a properly worded, and properly cited academic argument in high regard.

[3] If I were to assign a reflective assignment to my students, my criteria would be for them to be honest and authentic, be literate and articulate, and use proper and current citations, and of course, reflect course content, and most specifically to reflect their learning journey from their own perspective.

[4] I want my students to solidify learning in their own words and in their own voice. Reflection must be formative (first and foremost).

[5] I coined my own phrase! This is (after all) my own reflection. I digress.

References:

Biesta, G. J. J. (2013). The beautiful risk of education. New York: Routledge.

Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Broadway.

Merriam, S. B. (2017).  Adult learning theory: Evolution and future directions. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists… In Their Own Words (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Okanagan College. (2020). Senior Administration: President’s office. Okanagan College. Retrieved from https://www.okanagan.bc.ca/senior-administration/presidents-office

Rogers, C. R. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus: Merrill.