I have colleagues who invoke “Best Practices” the way that evangelical Christians quote the Bible: God has spoken. During these conversations, I am tempted to say in a serious voice, “Best Practices dictate that teaching writing should include loud music in a public place and synchronized dancing. In short, a flash mob.” I mean, if Best Practices are really going to be the end-all of pedagogy, I want them to be cool.
I had a revelation about Best Practices during a discussion with my students about a similar concept: universal design solutions. We were reading Cradle to Cradle, a book which challenges industry to become more sustainable through ecologically smart design and which raises questions about what architects call universal design solutions. Braungart and McDonough weren’t talking about students. They were talking about household products like detergent. Here’s how a universal design solution works: in order to market the same detergent across the country, the industry designs it to work effectively anywhere, regardless of water quality, no matter what is being washed. That means if I’m washing out my tea mug at a sink with soft water, I use the same detergent as someone 500 miles away washing a greasy pan in hard water. The ecologically devastating result is that I dump harsh chemicals, which were never necessary in the first place, into the waste stream and eventually the water supply, harming aquatic life for no good reason.
Braungart and McDonough summed it up this way: “To achieve their universal design solutions, manufacturers design for the worst-case scenario: they design a product for the worst possible circumstance, so that it will always operate with the same efficacy.” (30) One of my students summed it up this way: “If you care about ecology, universal design solutions suck.”
Manufacturers who want to mass-produce consumer goods depend on universal design solutions. I worry that universities, faced with pressure to churn out students who will all achieve the same “measurable learning outcomes,” have also come to embrace universal design solutions, packaged as “Best Practices.” For instance, when I was a grad student teaching composition at a large university, the curriculum stipulated that we were to ask each student to write a five-paragraph essay (no more, no less), with a thesis at the end of the introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and the thesis re-stated in the first line of the conclusion. We were to use that formula on every single student and every single paper, regardless of context. This teaching practice was based on the assumption that first year students couldn’t possibly come up with smart ways to organize their ideas. Composition teachers have, for the most part, abandoned that particular formula, but higher education hasn’t lost the quest for the Best Practices that can magically transform all students. Too often, faculty design pedagogy around the worst-case scenario and then apply that pedagogy to every student.
If you care about students, this approach sucks.
As a teacher, I prefer to assume the best-case scenario: that my students are brilliant and amazing. There is no such thing as a stupid student: he just has a different base of knowledge than I do. In fact, the different backgrounds and experiences that my students bring to the class add depth to our learning. Every student has something valuable to teach the rest of us. I’ve made that assumption for over thirty years now, and so far, I’ve never been proven wrong.
I don’t know the best way to teach students how to read, write, and think. It’s different for every single student. That’s why I try to put students in charge of their own learning. I ask them to analyze their own learning styles and move out of their comfort zones. My responsibility is to create a space (in the classroom and, increasingly, on the internet) where they feel safe experimenting, playing, and trying out new things. I try to create an atmosphere in which it is okay to be vulnerable.
For example, sometimes introverted students won’t speak up because they “hate people looking at me.” So we work around that. One time, a student turned out the lights in our basement classroom and we had class by flashlight, which prompted quiet students to speak up. Another student led a class where we used interpretive dance and communicated without words. Sometimes students bring art supplies to my literature class and add to our discussion with amazing drawings, while the rest of us doodle in solidarity. Each student brings a one-page informal piece of writing to every class: we pass these short papers around and read them, write and draw on them, and coax each other to speak up. “Once you’ve read each other’s papers, you can nudge each other,” I tell them. Students are more likely to respond to peer encouragement than to anything a teacher says.
Then there are the extroverted students, quick to blurt out opinions and jump into discussions. I’m one of them myself. We have to learn to listen carefully, to think before we talk, and to make room for everyone in the discussion. Last week in class, one student volunteered this experiment: “Okay, we’re going to talk about this reading. Each person has to contribute exactly three times, no more and no less.” During the next thirty minutes, I had to just take deep breaths every time there was a lull in the conversation, since I used up my three sentences pretty early in the discussion. It turns out that those lulls gave the introverts time to gather their thoughts and speak up. We extroverts have discovered, too, that there’s virtually no way to dominate a Twitter chat: the 140-character limit means that we have to edit ourselves.
The internet has given learners a bunch more options. Some introverts like Twitter chats, where they can participate in a quiet room with a laptop. Other students think the Twitter chats are too fast-paced; they like collaborative writing inside a Google Doc, which gives them time to process their thoughts. Sometimes shy students prefer to use twitter to introduce themselves. Some students are more likely to participate in online exercises where they can speak up under the cloak of anonymity, just as Harry Potter feels empowered when he puts on the invisibility cloak. Others prefer activities where they are required to sign in with their real names, because getting credit and being visible are motivating factors.
The list of activities we can try has evolved over the last thirty years. When I first began teaching, I was using a typewriter — and a ditto machine that produced purple-and-white copies that smelled wonderfully of ink. Many students later, I teach hybrid classes. For their Public Writing/Research Projects, for example, small groups of my students do primary research together, putting their field notes, photos, and videos into a shared Google Doc, and then they divide up the secondary research, each writing an individual research document, which they share with each other. They are required to make their ideas public, and they get to choose how they do this. They’ve come up with trailers to promote their projects, held twitter chats, created hashtags to raise awareness of environmental issues, asked the public to collaborate in writing assignments, made videos, defined terms, created brochures, offered crossword puzzles, wrote narratives, did interviews, wrote songs, created blogs, created art, and built websites. We are still exploring all the possibilities that the internet offers us.
My teaching methods have changed over the years, but my philosophy has not. I always assume that every student has something to say. Find what that student is passionate about — whether it’s dance or hunting or climate change — and that student will put in all kinds of effort to contribute to the larger discussion about that topic. Teaching is still about playing around with options, figuring out what you need to do to light that spark that will get students excited. Somedays, I am rearranging chairs in the classroom. Somedays, I’m opening up a Google Doc so that we can collaborate. Somedays, I’m jumping into a Twitter chat to learn more about a topic that my students care about.
Empowered to contribute options, my students come up with ways we can spread our ideas to the rest of the world. They held a nature photo contest on Twitter to see if we could get people to use their smartphones to become more aware of the nature around them. We’ve used Twitter to get folks to write lines of poetry which students then pulled into collaborative poems. We’ve used our bodies to show the world our hashtag. Every semester, we collaborate with students in other parts of the world. For example, we worked with Pete Rorabaugh’s students in Georgia to host round two of Twitter vs Zombies. My students here in upstate New York also interact through Twitter with Bernardo Trejo’s students in Taiwan. Since his students study sustainable tourism, my students try to lure them in by adding the topic of tourism to whatever environmental issue we’re discussing and offering opportunities to interact. Students on both sides of the globe especially love to share photos. When my students use the internet to begin discussions about environmental issues, we never know who is going to jump in: alumni, parents, friends, and often complete strangers. The internet has opened up possibilities that I never dreamed of when I first began teaching.
In this evolving and exciting world of hybrid pedagogy, I’m cautious about identifying Best Practices. Figuring out what will work with any particular group of students — well, that’s the work we do together. I bring to the course some expertise in writing and literature and pedagogy, but I always need to wait and see what my newest batch of students will bring to our circle of slanted desks and precariously balanced laptops.
I’m not dismissing Best Practices entirely. I like the idea of having some guidelines that teachers can learn from, ideas I can share with my students. But we should be a little more honest about what they are. Let’s not pretend that universal design solutions aren’t without problems. Let’s call them “Practices Worth Considering” or “Things You Could Try” or “Stuff That Just Might Work.” Let’s not assume that our students are all moving in the same direction, listening to the same music, and singing the same song. That’s not even a desirable outcome. Unless, of course, we’re doing a flash mob.