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Class participation, nap time, and power

haksayngAug 7, 2018, 1:16:56 AM

In efforts to make students "more involved" in their learning, many instructors try to encourage in-class participation. Or, as I will discuss further below, students are discouraged from not participating in class by disincentives, mainly grades. Instructors, who occupy positions of power (grade book keepers) in the classroom, can turn their students into a captive audience.

My view is that this, and other forms of "forced participation", are often not only recipes for boring classes (nap time), but that such strategies also train students to answer to power rather than principle in decision making.

Approaches to instruction that instead emphasize voluntary exchange of value are preferable because they allow hierarchies based on merit and virtue to emerge. Each student controls their attention as value, which they can choose to give or withhold in voluntary interactions.

It is thus the job of students to be respectful to one another (c.f. the silver rule) if they request respect themselves. And it is the instructor's job to provide value to students as, among other roles: a skilled moderator of discussion and an interesting lecturer (if it's that sort of class).

From crib to class

In formal schooling, students often feel "forced" at all to participate in activities that they do not find valuable. 

For children, many things are not optional. Children don't decide what families they are born into nor many of their living conditions. Going from Kindergarten through 12th grade (in the US), students have very little choice in where they find themselves. Students, for the most part, are unable to "opt out" of things they don't want to do.

Few if any parents, I think, will object to relatively rigid structure in early schooling. The trouble is when the sort of schooling appropriate for young children is extended through middle school, through high school, and finally to higher education.

Hence my criticism of "forced participation", particularly in higher education settings. This sort of policy is probably more popular in the humanities and social sciences in smaller classes (I don't have data on this; I have just seen such techniques being used at my university).

One result of depriving students the option of non-participation is that many of them do not develop strong negotiation skills and instead see power and coercion as their first go-to solution for addressing problems. Students implicitly learn that position (e.g. being a teacher) rather than competence gives power.

To succeed, a safe strategy is to "fake it till you make it". Or, to curry favor with those in power until you wield power yourself.


Teaching negotiation

We see many ways in which schools are not teaching students how to negotiate. What's to be done? 

Now myself an instructor with a short teaching gig, I am thinking about and looking for ways to not just deliver the content I am being paid to teach, but also how I can encourage students to think about value and how each of us can contribute to a peaceful society where freedom and voluntarism reigns.

To do so, I have to be willing to put myself on the line: attendance to my class is optional; I seek to provide value to you (students). This class must earn your attention; you are paying for it, will you extract value from it?

In practice, I expect my class to run pretty similarly to any other class. However, I hope that by bringing attention to ideas such as "voluntary interactions",  I can help students to both appreciate freedom and take responsibility for how they invest in their educations (through attention, money, etc.).

At the end of the day, many of my students may decide that taking my class is not the best use of their time and money. However, if they have the confidence to be upfront and make that judgment, I will count that as a teaching success just as I would consider hand shakes and "thanks for an excellent quarter" greetings from those that stay on board to be positive feedback on my ability as an instructor.

Negotiation only occurs between those in control of their actions and resources. First, let's give students responsibility over how they direct their attention.