Student Agency in Education
#1: Open Pedagogy
Two ideas that have particularly moved or interested me over the course of the CPLC were open-education and interdisciplinarity. To start with open pedagogy, prior to CPLC I thought of openness chiefly in terms of using open-access texts. This is certainly part of open pedagogy, and an important one; I strongly believe that nobody with the ability to succeed in college should find themselves priced out of success. And even when students can afford the texts, we should still be respectful of their wallets. In the past I have assigned open-access texts, and even when I wasn’t able to assign an open-access text, I still tried to keep with the spirt of open education, either by dispensing with a textbook altogether, or by choosing as cheap of an (adequate) textbook as I could find.
However, open pedagogy goes beyond this; it also encompasses allowing students to contribute to the knowledge commons themselves, and having greater agency in the classroom. For instance, by giving the students the opportunity to help craft course policies, set schedules, and curate course material. Perhaps because decades of rooting for the New York Jets has left me cynical, I was skeptical of these ideas prior to the CPLC. However, conversations with other CPLC members who have tried these techniques have convinced me that, when properly facilitated, the students can do quite a job at this.
One idea that I am considering implementing is giving students’ greater agency over what topics are discussed during the course. This Fall I am teaching Parties and Elections, and if you looked at my syllabus and those of other political scientists who teach that course, you would notice some commonalities to be sure. However, you would also see sharp differences. I might spend three days covering local elections, while another instructor might cover the topic in half-a-day. I might spend a full day discussing the intricacies of polling, which instructor might decide students don’t need to know. It isn’t that one of us is doing a bad job; you can have a perfectly good course that spends half-a-day on local elections, or three days on local elections. Instructors deal with tight course-schedules, and make decisions about what topics get covered, and in what depth. Typically, this is based on what the instructor is enthusiastic about. However, the students may find the experience more fulfilling if the course covers the topics they are enthusiastic about. In my Tackling a Wicked Problem course I’ve only filled in part of the semester on the syllabus, and will work with students to fill in the remainder. I am considering experimenting with this approach in my substantive courses in the future.
The world is inter-disciplinary, and for this reason we should pursue interdisciplinarity in our classes. I do my best, both in the TWP course and in my substantive courses, to address this in class. One thing that struck me over the course of the CPLC is how project-based learning can promote interdisciplinarity. Our students, particularly in our general education courses, come in with different skills, knowledge, and disciplinary perspectives. The most successful projects are those that fruitfully utilize the diverse skills and perspectives of its members. Projects that utilize a single perspective are unlikely to be successful, regardless of the hard work or ability of its members. Projects then, particularly ones addressing wicked problems, are well-suited to getting our students to practice interdisciplinarity. While this approach is not appropriate for all of my courses, it is one that could work well in many of my courses.