Monday, December 11, 2006

Dilemmas II - Freedom vs Authority

I was just browsing through Doug Noon's terrific blog Borderlands, and found myself reading, for the third or fourth time, his post on The Line Between Freedom and Authority.

It's a dilemma I have written about here, and thought about in a number of different contexts. The question of how much I need to direct my students vs. how much I need to support them is a throughline in every day's work. Do I choose the books, or do they? Do I design the responses, or do they? Do I decide how we're going to process the book (by using lit circles, or reading logs, or Harkness discussions, or book reports (God help us), or do I ask them to design a process? Do I give them directive feedback about a poem ("You need to cut the first stanza" or "That image is unclear, try another.") or do I let them figure it out on their own? Do I give them homework—a power play all on its own—or do I allow them to make their own choices, and learn from the consequences? Do I grade the papers, or do I ask them to design their own rubrics and evaluate their own work? Do I answer a question with information, or with another question? We make decisions about these matters every single minute of the classroom day, often on the fly, and relying less on articulated philosophy than on nonreflective teacherly intuition or baserock assumptions we may not even be aware of. How we answer these questions—and whether or not we even think much about them—goes a long way toward defining who we are as teachers, and what our students will learn from us. It's a dilemma. Here's Doug's summary paragraph, and it's about as eloquent a description of what we must do as I have seen or could well imagine:

We have to engage students in discussions about things that matter to them and act as guides and interpreters to the world they are living in. Choices, yes absolutely. It’s how students learn. Authority, yes as well. It’s our duty. Kids need all manner of guidance, and they look to us for leadership. They also trust us to keep them safe. We owe them the benefit of our experience and our knowledge of the world. The balance between responsibility and the need students have to take a risk is real, but it’s not a static limit. It shifts and moves with each individual. None of the institutional barriers restricting access to information will matter if we are truly engaged in honest dialog with our students. I don’t believe there is a choice for us to make between one extreme or another. I think we have to be both ally and authoritarian, depending on the circumstance. Dialog is key. When we speak from our hearts to theirs they know we care. Our challenge is to help students imagine a better future than the one that will be handed to them by default. How we do that is a creative process that nobody - to my knowledge - has mastered.

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