If you have not been to a university campus since the 1960s or 1970s, you might be surprised to find how similar the classroom environment is to that which you might remember from forty or more years ago. While technology has transformed the average classroom into something that looks sleek and modern, the actual instruction process remains unchanged or, possibly, even less effective. The professor stands in the front of the room and, usually, lectures at the students, who are typically arranged in rows. Technology like “Smart Boards” does allow professors to project fancy PowerPoint slide shows for students, and students can typically be seen with laptops or palm tops open, as if they are engaged in the class discussion. If you look carefully, however, you will likely notice that many students are using their laptops to shop online or to play video games rather than to take notes or to look-up terms they did not understand from the lecture via Dictionary.com. In effect, the students are there only because they feel they must be there. They are not engaged, and they almost never even bother to take notes because professors can now easily post their PowerPoints online for the students to download. It is not surprising that the students are not engaged given that the model of instruction dates from the middle ages, when there were few books. Professors would essentially read from the few texts that were available since students rarely had access to books. In an age in which mountains of text are accessible with a few clicks on a keyboard, however, it would seem that a new approach to university instruction is needed.
In the best classrooms, you might see the students sitting in a circle with the professor attempting to lead them in a discussion. Rarely, however, do the students in these classes get to pose the discussion questions themselves. Instead, the professor orchestrates discussion, often using a poor form of the Socratic method—which is designed to elicit from a student the “correct” answer to a question framed and posed by a professor. If you listen to students coming out of these sorts of classes, you will hear that the students are nearly as bored as they are in lectures. In fact, a professor that is ten, twenty, or more years older than their students is unlikely to pose questions that will truly engage the students. Many times, students know more than we think they know, and so we professors do not even pitch the question we may think is so provocative at the right level. Moreover, professors often become saturated, over time, with their own egos, causing us to think that we have special knowledge. We do have unique knowledge based upon our particular studies and experiences, but it is not special knowledge that could not possibly be divined or acquired by our students. In fact, what seems provocative to us may be obvious to our students. Modern students often know more than that for which we give them credit. What they do not know is subtle and often requires that we enter into a real dialogue with them.
The IF process for student-centered discussion offers something unique to students and faculty: an opportunity for real dialogue. We ask our faculty to step aside and, in part, turn the classroom over to their students. Students are charged with initiating, directing, and managing their own discussions, extending from the broad questions that animate the course content. Faculty give fewer lectures and usually cover much less material, but their students learn more. Over and over again, we find that faculty who use (or adapt) components of this process walk away absolutely amazed at the discussions their students are having and by the questions their students are able to pose when given the space to do so. At the end of class, faculty are able to highlight students’ comments and respond to the ideas raised by their students in such a way as to be able to provide a much more directed lecture. Students are much more engaged by these lectures since the content refers to their own questions and comments. Faculty can also use this time to respond to any misconceptions students expressed in their discussions without embarrassing any particular student.
The modern age requires that university graduates be effective communicators who are creative and self-directed. The modern university needs to think much more about how we teach rather than simply adopting high-tech accoutrements that do little to advance what we are actually doing in class beyond the model in which the professor stands before the crowd of students and pontificates. Students will undoubtedly learn some things from such performances, but what more could they learn if they were instead called to engage and perform themselves–using their own emerging knowledge? Could their professors not better help them to learn how to best assess information if they started by listening to how the students themselves think?