What caught my attention most in the work of Paulo Freire is “respect for what students know”—that is, taking advantage of students’ prior knowledge to learn more than is possible when a supposedly all-knowing professor dictates. I really love this perspective, given my disillusionment with academia and the ivory tower and my pro-blue collar/trade school/indigenous knowledge mindset (Did I mention I want to teach community college? Or just be one of those food critics that gets paid to eat a bunch of food? That’s a thing, right?). Although I have not yet been responsible for teaching a semester-long course, I have led several lectures and labs. I always make an effort to access this existing student knowledge by asking questions in a conversational manner during the lecture (e.g. “Have you ever noticed that…”). Similarly, I like to know where the students are from to tie in examples of natural features near their corresponding homes (e.g. “Who here is from the Piedmont? You’ve probably seen how…”). Note: following the microaggression theme from my last blog post, I ask this of pretty much everyone because I find it interesting; most of the time I actually hope you will be from somewhere different, because the hydrology might be distinct there. I copied this technique from some of my favorite professors because it made the subject matter more approachable and familiar to the students. I always felt a sense of ownership or authority on a given topic that related to me in some way, as if I already knew more than I thought I did. This tactic can be successful in all fields, but I find it especially easy to incorporate in hydrology. Water is all around us, unless maybe you are from a desert (which I would find out by asking where you are from), so we can tap into those subconscious observations to discover that most of us probably know a good deal about hydrology.
Respect for students’ prior knowledge is also critical from a multi/interdisciplinary standpoint. For example, a hydrology or geomorphology course would be essential for a wildlife biologist studying salamanders, but I would also be curious about the hydrological processes these students observe in their line of work (perhaps salamanders congregating near zones of cooler water upwelling in the summer, and where those areas might be?). Or, I would be interested to learn more about water rights from a political science or pre-law student. However, in order to capitalize on what students know, we must first know something about the students. As I mentioned, asking where students are from is one good question, but inquiring about fields of study and extracurricular interests also provides opportunities to connect with the course content and make the material relevant to each individual.
Maybe this is understood or assumed in the work of Freire, but I would add the modification to his model of informed problem-posing rather than simply problem-posing. I am still scarred from a few discussion-based graduate seminars that I guess attempted to get at this problem-posing format. For these seminars, we would read a few peer-reviewed articles, which were always really complicated and archaic and often written by renowned researchers. The professors wanted the students to entirely take charge of the discussion and talk about what was wrong with the paper, what we would do differently, etc. These are great questions and, theoretically, a fine set-up for a graduate-level class. Small problem: despite careful reading, we often did not understand the papers well enough to have this sort of discussion (like, “I think they do something with a sediment sample at some point”). I should clarify, I do believe that being able to work through complex articles that may not be in our area of expertise is an essential skill for graduate students to develop. However, the end result that I witnessed in these purely student-led classes was random babbling and tangents, and I did not feel like I came away with any more knowledge. Incidentally, I have taken really great graduate seminars that also involved reading and discussing articles. The professors in these classes still encouraged student-based discussion but created some structure by providing necessary background on the subject or interjecting with their own questions. At least in my experience, this model was more successful. While I like the problem-posing technique that draws on pre-existing student knowledge, professors should not completely step back, but rather teach concepts and suggest tools that can help solve these problems. I think that students do not normally use their prior knowledge in the classroom because they develop tunnel vision (“I always have to use this equation to get this answer”) and do not necessarily know they are allowed to do anything else. I feel that small prompts and reminders that students should use all of their intellectual resources to tackle a problem, as opposed to just the ones presented in class, can go a long way.
And in honor of my last blog post…