One of the most frustrating things about hearing about “learner-centered teaching” is how foreign it is to my experience. I routinely think of my pedagogy class as “touchy-feely”. Now, if you were an engineer with a couple decades of experience in practice, you would likely know that “touchy-feely” is not something you ever want to be, especially around colleagues or worse, on a job site. So, as I hear and read about the various strategies for truly connecting with students, on their terms, I am at war internally with my professional side saying it is just flat out wrong while my personal side says it has a great deal of merit. Unfortunately, these two sides each represent a path I have walked for a rather long time, and choosing this new path, the one that somehow blends the personal reactions with professional practice, is certainly an example of the “path less traveled”.
Now, I admit freely that my life experiences have affected how I look at things. I am a cynic about a number of subjects, including not just education, but whether I can truly connect with today’s students. The concepts being discussed amongst the class seem to focus primarily on building that connection through understanding today’s students, how they think, live, and learn. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly want to teach and to connect. But where is the balance between teaching what needs to be learned (as defined by curricula, certification, etc.) and teaching what wants to be learned by today’s students? In the extreme, imagine an engineering class of 40 where each student has their own interests and style of learning. How is it possible to connect with all 40, tailoring my teaching to draw out the potential of each one? Isn’t that my job? Or are we standing in front of a classroom using a shotgun approach hoping that with each lesson we touch at least a single student?
In a conversation with a fellow studier of pedagogy recently, I guess our philosophies were somewhat similar, though I suspect he is struggling with this path more than I. But we talked about an email that used to make the rounds about a little kid throwing starfish back into the ocean. When asked whether he could really hope to make a difference, the kid answered that he did for each starfish he throws. As a teacher (or professor, if you prefer, but I want to focus on just the teaching part), is that the best we are to hope for? That through understanding students in general and applying that knowledge to our techniques and approaches, that we can throw a few starfish while the remainder continue to struggle? It is a depressing thought.
As I read what I type and consider the words, I am reminded of the various articles and websites we were given about good blogging. Links and photos and giving the reader an experience. As with teaching, is a blog to be tailored to the type of person who reads it? Or is it an extension of the creator with hope that just one reader will connect? By typing my thoughts and doubts and all the rest, am I just throwing starfish in hopes of making a difference? I suppose time will tell.