Teacher/learner dependency: A classroom culture of reciprocity

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Kay MersethKatherine K.  Merseth, Senior Lecturer on Education, creates a culture of reciprocity in her classroom where students and instructors are expected to both teach and learn. “The two words are often interchanged because they are inextricably linked – learners need teachers, and teachers need learners.” She establishes this in part by requiring attendance and learning students’ names.

The benefits: Though seemingly contradictory, shared teaching and learning responsibility enhances instructor influence. In General Education course “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education” (see video trailer), Merseth encourages students to lead the discussion, promoting new perspective and understanding. “When I teach, I get back more than I put out because I acknowledge this relationship between teachers and learners. I teach, basically, because I love to learn.”

The challenges: The nature of improvement in teaching and learning is more uncertain than in other practitioner/client relationships. “Success is difficult to define. What does it look like? What are we measuring?” 

Takeaways and best practices

  • Because her approach relies on developing relationships, Merseth makes an effort by following up individually on students’ particularly insightful class comments, and reading The Harvard Crimsonto be aware of their extracurricular achievements. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
  • Instructors are more effective if they get to know their students and build upon their knowledgebase. “If you can hook a new understanding to an existing one, it will stick better.”
  • “I tell students that every ounce of energy I put into teaching, I expect them to reciprocate with equal energy in their learning. I hold them accountable, and they are expected to hold me accountable.” She carefully considers and addresses class exit cards in order to show her vulnerability and promote partnership in the learning process.  

Bottom line: Teachers and learners depend on one another to be successful – just as the teacher must be present, the learner must agree to participate. “If you don’t develop a meaningful relationship with your students, the learning will be diminished.”