Reconfiguring classroom mechanics to break down hegemony & build up student learning

October 19, 2020

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

John Asher JohnsonJohn Asher Johnson, Professor of Astronomy, aims to cut through dominant constructs of what teaching looks like and to disrupt hegemonies in his classes through collective norms setting and conveying to students that they are “intellectual peers with the professor.” He structures his courses around the Tao of TALC method in which students work on assignments in collaborative groups while the instructor and TFs use the Socratic method to stimulate collective problem-solving.

The benefits: Students come to understand the material more deeply and learn how to reason on their own. Additionally, this strategy helps to foster a close-knit collective, where students work together to create more equitable collaborations between each other across disciplinary backgrounds. “It’s really neat to see a Dance student working with two Astronomy students and they’re all going at the same pace and comfortable,” Johnson notes. “Just that little anecdote shows it’s quite effective over a wide range of both learning styles and exposure to the material.”

“We live in a capitalist society. We’ve been trained to understand the product more than the process. In my classroom, I emphasize process.”

The challenges: You will always have at least one student in the class who struggles with adjusting to these new mechanics. They will be used to societal definitions of intelligence—a more competitive style where students feel like they have something to prove—and they may have even constructed their identity around it. Train your TFs in advance to look out for this, and moderate this yourself as well in order to maintain classroom dynamics that enable students to believe in themselves and each other as thinkers.

Takeaways and best practices 

  • Spend time setting collective community norms. This is vital for creating optimal learning conditions for students throughout the semester. Johnson asks student groups to reflect on questions like “What has helped you learn most effectively in the past?” or “What interactions/aspects have hindered your ability to learn?” After making their answers visible on the board, students collectively identify unifying themes, self-select their working groups, and generate the classroom norms. One example of a past norm: “We give the benefit of the doubt to our classmates. They are Harvard students too. They belong in this classroom. Their misunderstanding in any given moment is only due to not having learned it yet.”
  • Encourage students to collaborate while monitoring themselves in discussion. Students are informed in advance that they must follow the “(1 / n) + ϵ” rule. In other words, their contributions should be divided by the n number of people in their group, with “ϵ” modulating that fraction to counteract dominant societal expectations. He adds, “No one is doing the math, but as an instructor it shows I’m cognizant of it and paying attention.”
  • Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Johnson believes that creating an effective learning environment requires a balancing act—getting students to believe they are your intellectual peers while maintaining their respect. “It comes down to the way you are willing to make yourself vulnerable in front of the students.” Johnson achieves this by allowing himself to make mistakes in the classroom, challenging the fear around making mistakes, and pushing back against the idea that the singular authority of knowledge should be placed on professors in a classroom setting.

Bottom line: Rethink how the exchange of information in your classroom creates power imbalances, and who that is most likely to negatively impact. Then work to prioritize student learning through placing the power back in the hands of students, supporting them in developing their own thinking and elevating the voices of those who are often unheard.