In sixteen days my wife and I will board the first of three planes for a very long trip to Nairobi, Kenya. We will meet the chair of the Counseling Department at the airport and hope to find a good night’s rest before making the four-hour drive to Kenya Methodist University the following day. I don’t anticipate being in good thinking shape after 25 hours of flight from Portland, Oregon to Newark, to Zurich, to Nairobi, so I’m trying to have a good framework in mind for one of the courses I will teach—Human Growth and Development.
I once had a college professor who confessed that his secret to teaching was to assign one text for the students and then lecture from a different one with a similar theme or focus. It always made him look like he knew a little more than the students—even those who were diligently studying the assigned text. I’ve never ascribed to that approach, but I have relied on assigned texts or reading lists in my teaching career. My approach has always been that my role was to help students manage what they know, to encourage them to challenge what they have read (or heard), and to reach their own conclusions about concepts, facts, approaches, ideas, and the other stuff of learning.
My teaching approach was shaped by a group of high school students in my first classroom in Kansas. I entered my teaching job assuming that I should know more than the students I would teach. When the student answers and discussions of several topics in the course illustrated vividly that many of the students knew more than I did, had read more extensively than I had, could write better than I could, and could spell much better than I could, I was panicked! I would literally get sick in the morning before going to school and I immediately thought I should give up my chosen profession because I didn’t even meet my own criteria.
I made a major change in my assumptions about teaching when I realized that I didn’t have to know more than the students, I merely had to assist them in their own search for knowledge, their practice of skills, their questioning of assumptions, and their development of beliefs. I became (and still am) a questioner, an encourager, a person who asks the student to go further, and a person who will accept that a student may reach a destination different than the one I would seek.
I wonder how that approach to teaching will change when the students in Kenya don’t have books, but rely more on lectures for the knowledge base that we typically assume has been introduced through readings, the web, or other media. I have always expected students to process what they read through their own expertise. I know the Kenyan students will have a rich experience repertoire, but won’t have the handy text book of theories, studies, and someone else’s organization of ideas into a tight body of knowledge. I don’t know to what extent it will be possible for them to share the few texts in the library or to cooperate with the few which may exist among the students (I’ve been informed that texts are rare among students).
I would like to approach the students as individual scientific researchers, putting an organizational frame around their individual experience and putting theories together as they pool their personal knowledge of family systems, community beliefs and values, educational practices, and other influences. I think that would be an exciting approach to teaching. I’ll have to find out what the expectations are for them to emerge from my class able to name three theorists, five assumptions, four classical studies, and seven applications from the literature of human growth and development.
We’ll see what develops. And, I’ll continue to look for those good suggestions from you blog followers.
Brooke Collison is professor emeritus of counselor education and a former president of the American Counseling Association. He will be a visiting professor at Kenya Methodist University in Meru, Kenya during the September trimester. Joan Collison will be a volunteer with children in a social service agency during their four-month stay in Kenya.