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Addressing students who complain, “What can I learn from these other students?”

One of the IF Fellows, Mark Notturno, is working with a small team at George Washington University to train a group of visiting scholars from Central and Eastern Europe in the IF method.  The approach is to work with these scholars over the course of this semester and then to send them back to their home countries to try using the IF method to teach one of their courses.  This is similar to the approach we take at Summer Institute, except that this group will be able to meet twice weekly for three hours at a time over the course of the semester.  Mark plans to take these scholars through a shortened project cycle, as if they were participants on one of IF’s sanctuary panels (which are the groups that develop the reports used in citizen discussions).  The group will also be discussing the practicalities of teaching with this method when they arrive back to their home universities.

Many in the group raised concerns that students would resist this method, arguing that they have paid a lot of money to hear the professor speak and not to hear a bunch of students who do not know anything speak.  The training team wondered if this is a concern that is unique to an Eastern or Central European context, but I have heard this complaint frequently over the years using the IF method, and I suspect many of you have heard the same thing when using the IF and other discussion methods.

It might be helpful to explore here how you have addressed these complaints.  I try to get students to consider a couple of key things:  (1) they are not paying for me to expound upon the topic– I am not a famous authority, and very few professors are; really, you are paying to earn credit for having mastered this set of material so that you become more expert in that– how can we make that happen?; (2) when you are talking with your small group in class, I am spending my time listening carefully to what you are saying so that you then benefit from not only a chance to explore an idea with your fellow students but also from my ability to see exactly where you and other students’ thinking is so that I can present material in the most useful and potentially insightful way possible.  

In fact, students will learn best and be most challenged when we as faculty can present material that gets exactly at the intersection of their understanding and curiosity/confusion.  I know from experience, too, that students come to realize that they can learn a great deal from their student colleagues once they start to listen.