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    The Importance of Community

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:39 pm

    I never really thought about the importance of community within the undergraduate classroom until I experienced its absence in my first year seminar, Human Dilemmas.  It was the first time I had taught in the College’s three-year old First Year Experience program.  Coincidentally or perhaps causally, it was also the first time I deliberately tried to implement social pedagogy into a course for first year students, an approach I’ve used very effectively for years in the senior capstone course for the sociology major.  

    Since one of the key features of social pedagogy is representing knowledge for others, I decided to ask my seminar of 13 students to work with me to prepare a presentation which would be given to the seven other first year seminars that were part of the Human Dilemmas cluster.  The topic focused on a complex core concept–enculturation.  I invited my students to work together to come up with a plan for teaching their peers about how culture shapes what humans know and understand.

    This assignment fit the social pedagogy design elements:  it asked the students to engage with a difficult authentic task, to represent knowledge for others, to engage in open ended exploration, to work together as an intellectual community, and to connect the affective to the cognitive.  Once a week a faculty member lectures to the approximately 100 students enrolled in the seven Human Dilemmas sections.  I told my students that I did not want to lecture, that I wanted to involve students directly in the presentation, and that I needed their help to find examples that would enable first year students to grasp this very difficult threshold concept of the social construction of knowledge.  The students read the assigned readings for that presentation the first week of the semester.  The class, then, worked on this project once a week for approximately six weeks.  

    In the end, the students were unsuccessful in coming up with a workable plan for the presentation.  While I incorporated a few of their ideas into it, for example a clip from Friends, and I also asked the larger group of students questions that my specific students were primed to answer when needed, I ultimately designed and delivered the presentation.

    Why did my students fail to come up with a workable plan for representing their knowledge about culture to their peers?  Initially, I thought it was because they were first year students in their first month of college and they simply didn’t have the expertise to design the presentation.  If seniors are capable of representing knowledge for others and first year students aren’t, it must be because novice learners need to know something before they can represent it for others.  

    Then I read their midterm exams and compared them to those from one of the other Human Dilemmas sections and saw that my students had indeed achieved a stronger grasp of this complex core concept than the other students who had only done the readings, heard my presentation, and discussed both in their seminar.   So the social pedagogy had produced a stronger grasp of this core concept.

    Next, I attributed the failure to my students’ inability to get along with each other.  The first week I had the class work as a group as a whole.  When they didn’t get any where, I decided 13 was too large a number to work together effectively and I broke them up randomly into four smaller groups the next week.  When that didn’t work, I decided to break them up into three groups randomly in the third week.  When that didn’t work, I decided to divide them into two groups:  the talkative students and the quiet students.  As I was assigning the groups, one of the talkative students demanded to know who had chosen the groups.  

    Three weeks into the semester, perhaps because of their inability to work together successfully on this project, it became painfully obvious to me that some of my students did not like each other, that they did not want to work with each other, and that they even had trouble being civil to each other in class discussions.  

    What I had failed to do was to create an intellectual community in my classroom, something I have always managed to do with my seniors.  I worked hard for the rest of the semester trying to get the students to behave civilly towards each other at least while in class.  I even had the peer mentor, a sophomore, facilitate half hour sessions with them when I was not present to try to clear the air as well as to encourage appropriate classroom behavior first at midterm and then a month later.  While the situation improved, the problem never went away, perhaps because the problem may not have originated in my classroom but in the dorms.  The new first year experience program includes housing students in first year seminars in the same dorms.  I will never again take for granted the presence of community in the classroom.

    I will teach the first year seminar for the second time this fall.  My first goal will be to create an intellectual community in the classroom.  The students do not have to be best friends but they do need to support each other as co-learners.