by Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty & Chair of the Sustainability Council

“Education should reflect the world we live in.” Who said that? Some famous educator? A successful business person? Oh, it obviously comes from the back wall in Room 303, right?

Nope. It was said by my student, Kayla Moore.

This quarter, I’m doing something new. Not because I, as a professional educator, thought of something new to do with all of my “education” or “experience.” Not because I read about it in a pedagogical periodical or went to a brown bag workshop or webinar. I’m doing something new because my student, Kayla Moore, approached me and said. “I have a lot of thoughts and ideas about education. It must be changed and I think I know how to do it!” Now, as the “professor” in this situation, my professionally acceptable responses would be as follows:

(1) “Well, focus on graduating first. Answer all of the questions, write all of the papers, and take all of the tests, then we’ll talk.” [Subtext: “Think the way I want you to first. Then, and only then, should you start thinking differently.”]

(2) “Change education? You need to be formally educated to understand what needs to change in education!” [Subtext: “Join us here in ‘the system.’ You’ll see.”]

(3) “That’s nice, dear.” [Subtext: “That’s nice, dear.”]

I’m a professor, right? I’m supposed to be doing the educating. I’m supposed to have the answers. I’m supposed to teach my students how to, when to, and what to think, right? Before you quickly (and smugly) claim “I don’t teach them what to think! I teach them critical thinking!” (as I did), consider these ideas, that I’ve been lucky enough to explore with Kayla in our independent study this quarter:

We’ve explored different “landscapes” for education, instead of the classroom.

We’ve explored teaching students to think of terms in the unexpected, instead of anticipating “what’s on the test”.

We’ve explored embracing social media and welcoming it in the classroom, instead of forcing students into a “phone-free” zone.

We’ve explored technology in a way that pushes education forward, letting it evolve into something beyond software that prevents “cheating” and facilitates “course management.”

We’ve explored changing the focus of education from “They need to get these ‘fundamentals’ down,” to “They need to learn how to innovate and develop new ‘fundamentals’ themselves.”

We’ve explored switching up the teacher-student relationship, and that is exactly what happened for me with this experience. I’ve learned that I don’t have all of the answers, or the best career advice, or the right opinion to hold. I’ve learned that there are innovative ways to get students engaged (like microblogging! Yes, Tweeting, in class!). I’ve learned that there are different ways for me to share the awesome stuff that I learn with my students (by interacting with them through social bookmarking, like we are peers who respect each other or something. Imagine that!)

I, a “professional educator,” have learned more about educating from my weekly discussions with Kayla than I have from most of my 11 years of experience because, for once, I relinquished the control.  I didn’t set up “objectives” or “learning outcomes” or “assignments” or “tests” for this independent study. I invited my colleagues to join in our conversation and (gasp) learn from Kayla’s insights as well (Thanks, Paul Gaszak, Gerry Dedera, and Tricia Lunt!). Instead of “teaching” her, I let Kayla’s ideas guide us, and she will be ending this quarter with an active blog on innovative thinking, a video that communicates her blog and draws the world to her ideas, a thesis that is evolving as we speak, focused on changing the educational system to help students become innovative and creative thinkers, on using what she calls “Academic Networking” to get students to learn in ways that mimic the world they have embraced and live in, and a formal plan and proposal for educators, to help us decide that, even though we are the “professionals,” it is time for US to get inspired: to let our students lead the way.

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