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We Are the Books our Students Read Most Closely

How might educators teach students to engage as active participants and facilitators in student-centered discussions? How might contemporary higher education classrooms become places for the discovery and social construction of alternative ways of thinking and acting in regard to complex topics? Part of the answer rests with the lessons students will draw from the behavior of their instructors. If faculty want students to learn how to be collaborative partners in exploring diverse perspectives and developing contrasting possibilities, then faculty will need to show students how to do this—not by telling them about it, or explaining the theory behind it, but by actually doing it themselves.

This might be easier said than done, of course.  Most faculty are used to conducting discussions where they serve as an expert arbiter of right and wrong answers. And faculty are used to structuring discussions or lectures to lead toward pre-determined insights or lessons.  It’s another matter entirely to teach in a way that facilitates the discovery of something new and that fosters the social construction of divergent possibilities. To teach in such a way is to be comfortable with not knowing, to be comfortable with uncertainty about which way a discussion will go, and to be comfortable working with others to think of different ways forward.

To engage in such collaborative and exploratory discussions requires one to participate in a certain way, whether one is a teacher or a student. It requires that one act in a certain way, exhibiting a willingness to explore possibilities and generosity of spirit. It requires, in other words, certain kinds of virtue. How can we teach such behaviors? How can we instill such virtues? Students need to see them in action—and they need a chance to practice them. As Louis Menand remarks in his essay on “Re-imagining Liberal Education”:

The Deweyan answer to questions like these would be that you cannot teach people a virtue by requiring them to read books about it. You can only teach a virtue by calling on people to exercise it. Virtue is not an innate property of character; it is an attribute of behavior.

If a classroom is going to focus on student-centered discussion, then students need not only to be taught about what they might be doing and why—they’ll need to see it and experience it firsthand as they are engaged by their instructor. This is why students need to experience faculty demonstration and modeling of discussion facilitation as well as guided practice. Yet in higher education contexts, we’re not always so ready to provide such experiences. Menand notes that while “every progressive nursery school director” can tell you that students learn socially and learn by doing, “American higher education provides almost no formal structure, almost no self-conscious design, for imagining pedagogy in this spirit.”

The first focal point for faculty who’d like to engage in teaching student-centered discussions is their own behavior. What are the attributes that students will need to engage successfully in exploratory and developmental discussions? What are the behaviors of inquisitiveness, sympathy, open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, and collegiality we’d like to see students exhibit in their student-centered discussions? Well these are the same attributes, the same behaviors that students will look to find in their instructors. Menand reminds us, “For those of us who are teachers, it isn’t what we teach that instills virtue; it’s how we teach. We are the books our students read most closely.”

–Jeff Prudhomme