Robinson, Wesch and the politics of ‘risk taking’ as a teacher.

The teachers that have made the greatest impression on me and my direction of study have been those who learn alongside us students. The power-directing, control orienting, “look at me up here” teachers are usually the type we fail to recall much, perhaps with some exception.

Ken Robinson and Michael Wesch echo this sentiment through their respective attitudes on the dearth of real learning. I took to heart Michael Wesch notion of the ‘significance problem’ and watched his disheartening video “A Vision of Students Today”, showing us the all-to-often harsh reality of the contemporary student’s attitude towards learning in universities. Both Robinson and Wesch are asking us to put purpose, teleologically driven mindsets back into classroom management and teaching.

Wesch, for example, takes Mashal McLuhan’s notion of the “medium is the message” as a means to reify learning instead of simply conveying information. One way to assess the success of this so called “Simulation Method” is to see the quality of students questions. Since Wesch is not “teaching” in the traditional sense mentioned above, he describes his style as akin to a type of “anti-teaching”. He states, “I am in the wonderful but awkward position of not knowing exactly what I am doing but blissfully learning along the way [with his students]. My job becomes less about teaching and more about encouraging students to join me on their quest” (last page, second to last paragraph). Thus, by making ourselves a student alongside our students, stating from the first class that “I too am learning alongside you!” will create an environment of humility towards knowledge and life that is necessary for learning. And everyone learns, even if they do not go to school.

Wesch is willing to take the risks that Robinson lays out in his speech to instill a sense of curiosity and learning about “how the world works”. Would we be willing to take such risks as teachers, fearing student responses, the position of our tenure-ship, inter-departmental politics, funding, and a university administration that seems to perpetuate the dullness of learning? There are simply too many political impediments that make such risks possible. Just as students want to get credit and get out, university administration seem to believe the same. Is a revolution in teaching, thus, necessary from the ground-up or top-down? Help me think this through!

6 thoughts on “Robinson, Wesch and the politics of ‘risk taking’ as a teacher.”

  1. Both.

    A mandate from above without support from the general staff will flounder and be unpopular. Further, a grassroots movement that is never viewed as a core value to the institution will eventually stagnate without a champion.

    The risk lies in how much time will be invested in the potential. For many this is difficult to imagine, let alone do. If there is the signaled intent from the administration and support from the staff it will happen. Otherwise it is uncertain.

  2. I agree with most of what you said regarding how both grassroots and top-down are necessary, but doubt whether ‘signaled intent’ and ‘support from staff’ ever really align themselves unless there is another tertiary factory involved. More often than not, that tertiary factor is ideological. Departments deal with this every day: internally between professors and externally with the larger school and administration. Pressures from within and without don’t always allow teachers to teach the way the want to.

  3. A very interesting point that I had not yet considered. It is one thing to inspire teachers to think outside the lecturing box and utilize anti-teaching techniques, and quite another to get the establishment (e.g. department heads and tenure committees) on board.

    I don’t know that this is as black and white as top-down or grassroots or even lecturing or anti-teaching. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle, with professors integrating some anti-teaching techniques along with some lecturing and other connected learning approaches for example, hopefully with the support of at least one fellow professor and/or member of the upper administration (e.g. dean, provost).

    It may be “safer” for professors to wait until after the checkboxes have been marked for tenure before implementing “risk-taking” in their classes. However, if these techniques are as effective at engaging students as they seem to be, the great reviews from students in the “risk-taking” professor’s classes may be a big help when the professor comes up for tenure or promotion.

    1. I agree.

      My thoughts are that this needs to be addressed from wherever we are. If we are teachers, we should be applying revolutionary techniques right where we are. We should encourage administration to administrate educational change. We should also encourage students to rethink how they operate within their learning environments and whether that is reinforcing the system.

      I think that often when we get caught up in “How should this be approached?” People leave thinking that it’s someone else’s job.

  4. This is a really interesting post! Thank you for sharing this perspective! I think there are ways that instructors can start to incorporate these ideas without necessarily doing a complete overhaul of the classroom or larger systems. We, as instructors, can make changes in the way we ask questions, the way we engage students, and the way we approach and present material. I think some of the risks that we take when incorporating some of these techniques are related to learning alongside students. It can be difficult to admit that we don’t have all of the answers. And it means giving up some of the control of the classroom.

  5. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Of course new faculty will want to be strategic about how and when they rock the boat. But the framing is everything — how you approach your teaching, think about your students, and interact with them will have a huge influence on how and what they learn. Even if what you’re doing in class seems fairly “conventional” I think there are lots of ways to cultivate mindful, engaged learning and inspire good question asking — even before tenure.

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