Do you run a democratic classroom? Should you?

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Do you run a democratic classroom? Should you?

Post by Eric18 » Mon Nov 03, 2008 5:23 pm

Who gets to speak in class? Whose ideas count? Who chooses the assignments? How do students receive feedback? Do students have a chance to conference with their instructors? Can YouTube be a valuable source for homework assignment? Do you want your students to become self-directed - or autotelic - in their studies?
Here’s a quick checklist that ESL teachers that I created for a recent CATESOL workshop called “Techniques for a More Democratic Classroom”. My core assumption remains that giving students more opportunities to literally speak, write, and share their insights leads to a more engaging, dynamic, and valuable classroom experience. I will write more on this topic in a few days, but here are some questions to consider.
1. Who do you currently teach? How would you describe the students?
2. What are some of their personal interests?
3. How can student interests be better incorporated into the curriculum?
4. Which assignments do students currently choose? Which seems most successful? Why?
5. What are some benefits of greater student participation?
6. What are some risks of greater student participation?
7. Do you want to increase the number of choices students make?
8. What critical language skills can be taught by tapping into their interests?
9. How can you tweak current material to better individualize instruction?
10. What internet resources can you use to augment the current curriculum?
11. Which exercises or activities do you find most successful in your classroom?
12. What decisions do you keep as your prerogative as the instructor?
13. Will your students become self-directed learners?
14. How can you encourage that possibility?
15. How can you create a more democratic classroom?
16. What are some obstacles to a more democratic classroom?
17. How does technology encourage a more democratic classroom?
“Education is a kind of continuing dialogue and a dialogue assumes, in the nature of the case, different points of view.” Robert Hutchins (1899-1977), former President of University of Chicago and educational philosopher

Do you agree? Disagree? Why? Feel free to let me know.

Ask more. Know more. Share more. Create Compelling Conversations.

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Post by iain » Tue Nov 04, 2008 8:25 am

Interesting and useful - I hope you don't expect written answers. However, I think it would be worth adding a fundamentally important question: In what circumstances do you teach?
Teaching an mixed-nationality group of motivated young adults in a full-time course in the UK or US is one thing. Teaching working adults on a two-hour-per-week general English course in their own countries is very different. Without going up the SLA route, circumstances and needs should be taken into account when planning a course.
It's not unlikely that the short-on-time adults would (given the choice) democratically decide to leave major operational decisions in the hands of a trusted teacher, who is able to work on the basis of consensus rather than imposition.
I'm not proposing undemocratic teaching (God help me!) but a bit of informed caution needs to be applied. I forgot who said it right now but it makes a fair bit of sense in my mind: 'Learners know what they want but they don't know all there is to learn or how to set about learning it.' That's what experienced, responsible and senstive teachers are for, isn't it? You just have to find one.

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Post by Macavity » Tue Nov 04, 2008 8:45 am

Democracy is only one of many forms of government, and not necessarily the best form to run with in the classroom. Many of the adult learners (2 hours a week for the most part) that I have tried to empower with a certain amount of autonomy, whilst exploring the possibilities of running democratic courses, have in fact viewed this situation with a certain amount of scepticism and have, on occasion, even gone so far as openly criticising my attempts at devolution as my not doing my job properly. I am the teacher and it seems for the majority of adult learners that means that I am expected to know best.

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Good points - Context matters

Post by Eric18 » Tue Nov 04, 2008 4:14 pm

Context, as ever, matters.

I teach undergraduate and graduate international students in Los Angeles at an elite private university. Yet I've also used several techniques with adult education students, IEP students, and community college students. Assigning a topic (housing, tourist sights, elections) and allowing students to find their own articles and select their own research papers seem remain solid practices - even in other contexts.

Allowing students to also share their work - even if littered with some "good mistakes" - helps encourage fluency, if not accuracy. Sometimes fluency and confidence count more; sometimes accuracy matters more. One trick, it seems to me, is being quite clear whether you are working on fluency or accuracy - or a mixture - for each assignment.

Of course, the teacher remains the authority figure and gives formal assessments. Yet peer and self evaluations - especially of videotaped oral reports - are quite valuable. too. Likewise, allowing students to choose their own content provides a gentle nudge toward allowing them to become who they are and who they hope to be in the future.

Many students do, as noted, prefer a more traditional teaching style at first. Like many aspects of life and education, new approaches require positive experiences to overcome natural reluctance.

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Post by Sheila Collins » Wed Nov 05, 2008 2:35 pm

As a general rule, the younger my students are, the more interested they are in a "democratic classroom". The older students, particularly the adults, accuse me of not doing my job when I give them a selection of tasks to choose from, or ask what they would like to learn next.

What I strive for is not so much the "democratic classroom", but the "humanist classroom"; whether the students choose to take control of their own education, or whether they must do the work I assign them, the minute I forget I am working with human beings is the minute they stop learning.

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Post by Karenne » Fri Nov 07, 2008 8:56 am

I'm with Sheila on the humanistic classroom: am very student centered.

If the students have chosen the topics, the aims and goals, if they buy in to the curriculum. my work is not only easier it's also more effective!


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Post by Sally Olsen » Fri Nov 07, 2008 5:33 pm

In one university class I took, the professor asked the student to take over the class from presentations to designing assginments to assigning our final mark. I have never worked so hard, nor done better work. I was thorougly invested in the class and wanted to make it the best for all the students and myself.

However, the professor never attempted this style of teaching again and I heard varioius stories that he was reprimanded by the powers that be although he himself denied this when I asked him directly. He said that he liked to try different things in each course and that is true as I took another course from him and he was much more direct and in control. It was a good course as well.

I think that it depends some of what type of classroom you are comfortable with and how much control you want to give the students. Some teachers are afraid that the student "teachers" will not cover the material to the depth and correctness that they could, they don't like a lot of talking if the students use group work and so on.

It is always a matter of negotiation but I have found that you can gradually introduce any type of teaching you want if you train the students in the ways that they need to participate. You have to think of their training to the teachng style as part of the job and make it plain to the students what you are doing and why.

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Post by fluffyhamster » Fri Nov 07, 2008 9:00 pm

Like Iain and Mac, I've learnt to be wary of appearing to abnegate responsibility. Give me sound empirically-based references, halfway-decent textbooks and the time and leeway to create my own supplementary materials and I won't have to lean too much on students for ideas or to tell me what I should know (and if it's stuff I don't really know e.g. really technical ESP stuff, I'll bow out of teaching/claiming to be able to teach it before embarrassing myself too much). But obviously we should be sensitive to students' interest and strive to "teach" (present, demonstrate, personify) the language (actual language!) in a human way - how I hate the affected voice and manner of many so-called teachers (more like, patronizing control freaks!), especially when they are presented (in transcripts in teacher training books) as examples of satisfactory or even quite good teaching.

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Post by woodcutter » Wed Nov 19, 2008 6:34 am

If you do a CELTA type thing before you teach, democratic classrooms will seem like a natural, good thing.

However, out in the real world, I think you'll find students respond to confident, here I am, I know all about language learning, I'm the clear, loud teacherism more often than not. Bluffing has always been a key educational weapon. However, try and anticipate what the students want, continuously use your subtle antennae, revise things, and then act as if whatever you end up with is great methodology. Don't actually ask them, because anyway it is extremely tricky to get results that will help you by doing so, and it will confuse most people. I'm not saying this stuff because I want it to be true. I wish it was not. It is just what classroom life has taught me.

(Small friendly groups with a lot in common can be a bit different, daytime older adult classes spring to mind)

It is hard to escape the teacherish mannerisms sometimes, but you can work on it.

Sally is probably right that you can help a class to become democratic, or anything else, but why bother anyway. Students should have many teachers. Let them taste your kind of style and move on. Classes aren't like republics. You aren't stuck in the same one with the same people all the time, and you may not have anything in common with your classmates.

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Healthy discussion!

Post by Eric18 » Wed Dec 17, 2008 6:24 am

Thank you for sharing your experiences, insights, and classroom techniques.

One clarification. You can be a confident source of information and lecturer and still run a democratic classroom. Democratic doesn't mean anarchy; it means encouraging learner participation. I still set the tone, raise the questions, host the discussions, grade the papers, create the tests, and give the final grades.

I also have to reject the suggestion that running a democratic classroom means lessening teacher responsibilities. For instance, tailoring assignments for individual students takes considerable time. I find appropriate newspaper and magazine articles for my students, and it leads to far better teacher-student conferences and nuanced research papers. (I began this practice while teaching adult education even when I didn't have student conferences, and students seemed to appreciate the attention on their interests. )

Anyway, thank you for joining in this healthy discussion!

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