Subverting the System: Student and Teacher as Equals

| November 13, 2013 | 15 Comments
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By Luba Vangelova

Every day, veteran educator Scott Henstrand walks into his history classroom at the Brooklyn Collaborative Studies secondary school, jots down a few conversation-starters on the blackboard, then takes a seat amongst the 14- to 17-year-olds. He does the same work as they do, and raises his hand when he wants to speak.

For most of his 20-year career, Henstrand played the more familiar role of a teacher as the manager of a classroom. The shift to this new structure was gradual and grew out of his observation that all of his students shared some fundamental needs, regardless of age: “They all wanted to feel in charge of their lives, and to feel that what they were doing has meaning,” he says.

He was grateful to eventually land at his current school, which uses expeditionary learning and performance-based assessments in lieu of graduation exams. More significantly, students (a racially mixed group, some 70 percent of them coming from low-income families where, in many cases, neither parent finished high school) are represented on the school’s decision-making committee, and teachers are given great leeway to be creative and experiment with various degrees of egalitarianism.

In 2009, Henstrand took advantage of this freedom to develop and teach a physics class that challenged some fundamental assumptions – specifically, that teachers convey knowledge, that students should desire that knowledge, and that teachers should be the sole arbiters in judging students. Those constructs lead to power struggles and resistance, he says.

“It really comes down to what you trust: Do you trust the process, and do you trust the students?”

So instead, he presented problems for the students to solve: He challenged them to learn about physics by analyzing how children interact with toys and playground equipment, and to learn about the world of design firms by designing a playground for a real group of third-graders. He modeled the evaluations on the belt system in karate, and he enlisted students who had previously mastered certain skills to help evaluate the proficiency of fellow students. He also tried to encourage students to learn new things about themselves and their fellow students, in addition to the content areas.

“This shifted responsibility to the students,” he says. Many found themselves enjoying physics, and Henstrand noticed that he was experiencing less stress. But he was still in the lead role.

That changed in 2012, after he heard about a novel course called “Big History” and was given permission to pilot it at his school (more than 100 classrooms around the world are now using it). It looks at history through a different lens: Instead of the standard curriculum featuring a linear march through time, it presents open-ended opportunities for students to contemplate the human race within the context of the universe. It aims to develop a broad content knowledge base and critical thinking skills, within a collective learning context.

“We’re not looking at it as a narrative that the students must believe,” Henstrand says. “Instead, we test out ideas and why we believe them. Students in this age group are driven most by philosophical questions. They gravitate to them like ducks to water, because they’re thinking the same things; they’re just more visceral and open about it than the rest of us.”

As he was contemplating how to teach the course, he also began to test out his own ideas about his role as an educator. He began to think of everyone in the classroom as a learner.

“It’s a different way of approaching education, with educators not being the controlling force,” he says. “It’s about breaking down boundaries and seeing yourself as an equal. We’re all just doing the best we can to learn and to try to form a narrative with cohesion and meaning.”

Henstrand- portrait

ADJUSTING TO THE UNKNOWN

Not having someone in the role of classroom manager created a vacuum the teenagers initially were reluctant to fill. “At first they didn’t believe it,” Henstrand says. “Then they found it very scary, because they weren’t able to just sit passively and wait for someone to tell them what to do. And they were being asked what they thought; for many, it was the first time they had experienced such respect for their thinking. They were waiting for structure and saying, ‘Tell me what to learn, and I’ll learn that.’”

Henstrand stayed the course and watched them gradually adjust to their new-found freedom. “All humans want autonomy and a say in what they’re doing,” he says. “Some students seem to want more to be told what to do; my feeling is that they’re just uncomfortable with the power of directing their own destiny, and their own learning.”

He adds that this is probably more a function of conditioning than human nature, because “by early spring, they were all fully running with it.” Some stood up and started group discussions, perhaps based on the videos and texts that come with the course; others preferred one-on-one discussions.

Students in Henstrand's Design for Play class.

Students in Henstrand's Design for Play class.

“The students create the class,” Henstrand says. “It’s not guided, except by what they’re saying. It’s breaking down all the old paradigms.”

He has carved out a new role for himself, as a dialogue starter. “I introduce questions, but I don’t have answers,” he says. “A different educator will come up with a different approach. We often look for a teaching technique, but the teacher has to find what drives them. It’s about being present with the students, being passionate about the same questions, and working together to learn something and build a narrative.”

[RELATED: Shifting the Classroom, One Step At a Time]

Students nominate other students to develop a rubric and perform evaluations. Henstrand says he himself deemed the first year a success when he learned that students were continuing the discussions outside the class, and students began asking if they could take the class for a second year. “I hate school,” one student told him, “but this is what it’s all about.”

“We’re establishing a culture of learning,” Henstrand says. “They’ve started defending what they’re thinking, even if it’s at odds with their parents or other authority figures. They start testing their own beliefs, as well as those of others; they want to know the evidence and the logic. They don’t take anything at face value any more.”

Other teachers liked what they saw and wanted to get involved, so this year Henstrand is mentoring colleagues in three “Big History” courses.

“It requires a different mindset,” he says. “Teaching is as much an internal journey, with the relationship between humans in a class as essential as pedagogy. Are you willing to see yourself on equal footing? Everyone is capable of that mindset. It really comes down to what you trust: Do you trust the process, and do you trust the students?”

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian and Salon.

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  • http://www.livingequalslearning.com/ LivingEqualsLearning

    What a great piece, Luba. Kudos to Scott Henstrand!

  • George Popham

    I am very interested in this kind of education, it is very similar to the sort of progressive constructionist approach education writer Alfie Kohn supports in his books and articles. What you describe in the article is also similar to St. John’s College, where I went to school. We did not have professors there, we had Tutors, and at least one was present in every class. We students showed up and the tutor would propose a question and we used that as a point of departure. Whether we were comparing out translations of the Iliad, or demonstrating our geometry proofs or discussing our confusing Aristotle reading, we were expected to actively hash it all out ourselves. The tutor contributed, facilitated, and was a usually as interested as we were, but the best tutors had mastered the art of getting out of the way once we were on to something. The tutor was always construed as a more advanced learner, but still a student like everyone else. My experiences at St. John’s was the perfect antidote to my high school experience, which was pretty catastrophic.

    I’ve sent this article on to my staff, because we are actively training in this educational style. The classes at Bay State Learning Cooperative will be optional, but they will be conducted like this. I’ve got our staff working through mini courses for ourselves to get a feel for this. We read things and discuss them, look into problems in subjects we aren’t familiar with and try and work through them. (Last year we did a few weeks working through Euclidian geometry, which was a huge amount of fun.) All attempts to do something like this in the public schools I worked at were simply blown out of the water.

    Bay State Learning Cooperative is a non-profit startup, and we hope to open our our doors in September of 2014. We are currently in the midst of a crowd funding campaign: http://incited.org/projects/bay-state-learning-cooperative-startup

    and our website is at http://www.baystatelearning.org

    • st. cecilia

      St. John’s may destabilize the hierarchy between student and teacher, but by promoting such a western male-dominated course of study don’t they simply reinforce the systems that gives us the student/teacher dichotomy in the first place?

  • George Popham

    In the last five years teaching at high schools and charter schools I repeatedly heard teachers say, “You’re not here to be their friend!” I noticed that the people who said this never went on to mention what sort of relationship we *were* supposed to have with our students. Being constitutionally unable to keep my mouth shut in no win situations, I’d ask about this and I was always told I was supposed to “build a rapport” with my students, but never be friends with them.

    I’m still not altogether certain what this was supposed to mean. The teachers who liked to say this sort of thing were usually very proud of their classroom toughness, so I suppose they were banking on some kind of grudging retroactive respect, like soldiers in movies feel for their abusive drill instructors. From what I could see, it never played out that way.

    This sort of educational approach will go a long way toward building relationships with students that promote genuine learning.

    George Popham
    http://www.baystatelearning.org

  • WriteLearning

    I’m reluctant to criticize a remarkable effort to create more engaged classrooms, but I know so much more can be done, and is in fact _being_ done. At Sudbury schools like the one where I’ve worked since 1998 (http://alpinevalleyschool.com), we aren’t “breaking down old paradigms” — we’ve created a new one. We don’t offer greater degrees of egalitarianism — equal rights for all students and staff is a core principle. Students of all ages thrive when given full measures of respect and responsibility, and their learning becomes both personalized and empowering. I humbly submit that f we want real change we need an entirely new approach, not simply a more humane version of the old one.

  • meghanbrannon

    In order for this to happen in more than just isolated pockets, teachers and administrators have to be free to develop their own lesson plans that don’t rely on data points and developmentally inappropriate standards. Clearly this school is not a proponent of high stakes testing. It chokes the life out of students and teachers. I would love for thinking like this to permeate at the highest levels of state and national policy. But for that to happen bureaucrats would have to start thinking of children as people, not widgets; teachers are facilitators of thinking, not interchangeable parts of a machine, that (let’s face it) they secretly think computers can do a better job of doing.

  • Jeanne Faulconer

    Many homeschoolers use this approach. People often picture parents as typical classroom teachers just delivering the goods around the kitchen table. While some homeschoolers do follow that model, many more homeschooling parents are somewhere on the spectrum of being collaborative learners and facilitators rather than using a 100% teacher-injects-knowledge-into-student model. It is so interesting to see how frequently some “new” idea in education comes up, only to recognize that it has been going on for years in the homeschooling community. WIRED magazine recently had a cover story like this as well — exciting “new” ideas about education — that we homeschoolers have been executing successfully for years.

    • Debi K Baughman

      All new endeavors needs a testing period, an experimental phase. What is really good is that overall homeschool students test on the upper end and above when they do have to take the standardized tests, or at least are a Le show their proficiency when applying for colleges or business start ups. At least having these scores to go by this could be provided as an example in this style and how well it works. Still, what this teacher has done is to use this approach with students where it is not a family thing and from various home situations. What he is doing is beautiful…. And I am loving that others want to learn it as well

  • milolasmom

    This is what good Montessori schools have been doing for over a hundred years. The teacher is an observant guide.

    • Joy Winsly

      well said

  • Schools in Chennai

    This is a great post over the education where the student and teachers are treated as equal.

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