Subverting the System: Student and Teacher as Equals

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By Luba Vangelova

Every day, veteran educator Scott Henstrand walks into his history classroom at the Brooklyn Collaborative Studies secondary school, jots down a few conversation-starters on the blackboard, then takes a seat amongst the 14- to 17-year-olds. He does the same work as they do, and raises his hand when he wants to speak.

For most of his 20-year career, Henstrand played the more familiar role of a teacher as the manager of a classroom. The shift to this new structure was gradual and grew out of his observation that all of his students shared some fundamental needs, regardless of age: “They all wanted to feel in charge of their lives, and to feel that what they were doing has meaning,” he says.

He was grateful to eventually land at his current school, which uses expeditionary learning and performance-based assessments in lieu of graduation exams. More significantly, students (a racially mixed group, some 70 percent of them coming from low-income families where, in many cases, neither parent finished high school) are represented on the school’s decision-making committee, and teachers are given great leeway to be creative and experiment with various degrees of egalitarianism.

In 2009, Henstrand took advantage of this freedom to develop and teach a physics class that challenged some fundamental assumptions – specifically, that teachers convey knowledge, that students should desire that knowledge, and that teachers should be the sole arbiters in judging students. Those constructs lead to power struggles and resistance, he says.

So instead, he presented problems for the students to solve: He challenged them to learn about physics by analyzing how children interact with toys and playground equipment, and to learn about the world of design firms by designing a playground for a real group of third-graders. He modeled the evaluations on the belt system in karate, and he enlisted students who had previously mastered certain skills to help evaluate the proficiency of fellow students. He also tried to encourage students to learn new things about themselves and their fellow students, in addition to the content areas.

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“This shifted responsibility to the students,” he says. Many found themselves enjoying physics, and Henstrand noticed that he was experiencing less stress. But he was still in the lead role.

That changed in 2012, after he heard about a novel course called “Big History” and was given permission to pilot it at his school (more than 100 classrooms around the world are now using it). It looks at history through a different lens: Instead of the standard curriculum featuring a linear march through time, it presents open-ended opportunities for students to contemplate the human race within the context of the universe. It aims to develop a broad content knowledge base and critical thinking skills, within a collective learning context.

“We’re not looking at it as a narrative that the students must believe,” Henstrand says. “Instead, we test out ideas and why we believe them. Students in this age group are driven most by philosophical questions. They gravitate to them like ducks to water, because they’re thinking the same things; they’re just more visceral and open about it than the rest of us.”

As he was contemplating how to teach the course, he also began to test out his own ideas about his role as an educator. He began to think of everyone in the classroom as a learner.

“It’s a different way of approaching education, with educators not being the controlling force,” he says. “It’s about breaking down boundaries and seeing yourself as an equal. We’re all just doing the best we can to learn and to try to form a narrative with cohesion and meaning.”

Henstrand- portrait

ADJUSTING TO THE UNKNOWN

Not having someone in the role of classroom manager created a vacuum the teenagers initially were reluctant to fill. “At first they didn’t believe it,” Henstrand says. “Then they found it very scary, because they weren’t able to just sit passively and wait for someone to tell them what to do. And they were being asked what they thought; for many, it was the first time they had experienced such respect for their thinking. They were waiting for structure and saying, ‘Tell me what to learn, and I’ll learn that.’”

Henstrand stayed the course and watched them gradually adjust to their new-found freedom. “All humans want autonomy and a say in what they’re doing,” he says. “Some students seem to want more to be told what to do; my feeling is that they’re just uncomfortable with the power of directing their own destiny, and their own learning.”

He adds that this is probably more a function of conditioning than human nature, because “by early spring, they were all fully running with it.” Some stood up and started group discussions, perhaps based on the videos and texts that come with the course; others preferred one-on-one discussions.

Students in Henstrand's Design for Play class.
Students in Henstrand's Design for Play class.

“The students create the class,” Henstrand says. “It’s not guided, except by what they’re saying. It’s breaking down all the old paradigms.”

He has carved out a new role for himself, as a dialogue starter. “I introduce questions, but I don’t have answers,” he says. “A different educator will come up with a different approach. We often look for a teaching technique, but the teacher has to find what drives them. It’s about being present with the students, being passionate about the same questions, and working together to learn something and build a narrative.”

[RELATED: Shifting the Classroom, One Step At a Time]

Students nominate other students to develop a rubric and perform evaluations. Henstrand says he himself deemed the first year a success when he learned that students were continuing the discussions outside the class, and students began asking if they could take the class for a second year. “I hate school,” one student told him, “but this is what it’s all about.”

“We’re establishing a culture of learning,” Henstrand says. “They’ve started defending what they’re thinking, even if it’s at odds with their parents or other authority figures. They start testing their own beliefs, as well as those of others; they want to know the evidence and the logic. They don’t take anything at face value any more."

Other teachers liked what they saw and wanted to get involved, so this year Henstrand is mentoring colleagues in three “Big History” courses.

“It requires a different mindset,” he says. “Teaching is as much an internal journey, with the relationship between humans in a class as essential as pedagogy. Are you willing to see yourself on equal footing? Everyone is capable of that mindset. It really comes down to what you trust: Do you trust the process, and do you trust the students?”

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Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian and Salon.

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