Owning vs. Sharing the Classroom

Editor’s note: This post by Penny MacCormack, EdD, ACUE Chief Academic Officer, is a response to a recent study by anthropologist Lauren Herckis.

What instructor hasn’t felt the need to control the classroom? The pressure on new educators to appear poised and in charge weighs on them. The thought of ceding any of that control to students feels somehow wrong even though extensive research demonstrates that student achievement is significantly greater in interactive environments than in lecture-based courses.

A study by Carnegie Mellon anthropologist Lauren Herckis has shed light on the failure of evidence-based teaching strategies to find their way into classrooms. She cites multiple explanations, among them fear of poor evaluations, fear of looking stupid, and fear of trying something new. Fear, it turns out, is at the heart of the problem. Instructors are afraid of adopting new approaches and failing.

Herckis’s findings are not at all surprising. Fear of making mistakes is human; why should academics be any different from the rest of humanity? Also human is the instinct to stick with what you know. How many young teaching professionals have imitated the techniques and styles of their own professors, embracing classroom practices likely borrowed from their professors?

Instructors are experts in their discipline or field, but graduate school, research, and publishing alone do not prepare instructors for the classroom. Many veteran faculty have picked up a patchwork of teaching practices at conferences and workshops. Let’s use Herckis’s study as a teaching moment and support new faculty as they learn how to teach.

In her work, renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discovered two types of learners: those with fixed mindsets, who believe their intelligence is set and no amount of effort will make them smarter; and those with growth mindsets, who possess the confidence to believe in their ability to boost intelligence through persistence and varying strategies. At ACUE, we believe in the remarkable power of the growth mindset to foster significant academic achievement. In our teaching module “Helping Students Persist in Their Studies,” our expert instructors discuss techniques for cultivating student motivation even as the work increases in difficulty. They also demonstrate the connection between increased effort and improved performance. Methods for promoting active learning permeate our program, supporting the growth mindset not only among students but among educators as well.

It takes courage to enter unfamiliar territory, particularly with 20, 40, 60 or more sets of eyes on you. Growth by definition involves embracing trial and error. Let’s take the pressure off of instructors and provide them with tools that foster growth. Let’s replace the urge to control the classroom with an openness to sharing the space and encouraging teacher-student collaboration. It is my strong belief—and the research backs me up—that this is the better way.

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