When I first began teaching, my teaching philosophy drew upon William Butler Yeats, who wrote that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Learning, I thought, was a life-long process of being continually sparked and stretched by new ideas, terrain, and people. I am still drawn to the image of education as a fire: captivating, warming, and energizing our minds and our souls. However, I have also come to understand that learning is not simply ignited by the instructor, but also kindled from each individual student’s repository of experiences and motivations. Now I see teaching and learning as acts of purposeful conversation. Conversations are meaningful when there is negotiation of ideas between two or more agents, who find the learning relevant and create shared energy through the interaction.
I believe that learning—especially the higher mental processes such as critical thinking—is nurtured through thoughtful, reflective social negotiations—that is, through conversation with others. In learning, as in conversation, our separate worlds interact, requiring us to calibrate and negotiate new understanding. One way I create opportunities for my students to assess and evaluate their own learning is by giving them repeated opportunities to compare their own ideas to those of their classmates. In addition to face-to-face discussions, I have employed asynchronous discussion boards and even Twitter feeds to allow my students to return to a topic again and again over several days, weeks, or even the duration of a course. Students who are quieter are given time to reflect and contribute, and this improves the sense of community, as students no longer feel they must compete for “airtime” in the classroom. Additionally, my husband’s doctoral research found that when negotiating subjects that are close to the heart (he examined a course, taught in the American heartland, which took a secular approach to the Old Testament), students preferred asynchronous discussions to face-to-face ones because they valued the time to mull over challenging questions and arrive at their own understandings. I seek to foster a safe yet vibrant space for this negotiation of meaning and the conversations and learning that result.
As in meaningful conversations, learning occurs when we honor and facilitate the agency of the learners though purposeful assignments with real-world applicability and meaningful choices. For example, after reading about Atticus’s bravery in To Kill a Mockingbird, I asked my high school students to write (and send!) a persuasive letter about an issue they felt strongly about. Poor writers suddenly wrote with power and conviction (and even elegance!). Students were delighted when, on occasion, their letters received responses (again, aligning with the conversation metaphor), and I was impressed by how important personal relevance and choice are to learning. In another assignment, I introduced students to some major studies about human nature from the 20th century (Milgram’s obedience study, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Asch’s conformity research) and then helped them to craft arguments that synthesized what world literature and psychological research were saying about human nature. The results still remain some of the best writing I have seen from high school students, and it was successful because it connected subject matter (world literature) to my learners’ human experiences. Finally, when teaching in-service teachers in a Master’s degree program at George Mason University (GMU), I tied almost every assignment to the development of a personal portfolio which they could use in their own classrooms. Students were empowered because the learning connected to their real-life needs and honored their agency.
When agency is cultivated and understanding is negotiated, learning—like conversation—becomes a context where energy is shared—learner to learner as well as between learner and teacher. I truly love experiencing that shared energy in my classrooms. My enthusiasm for my students is apparent: during one summer college course that began at 8 am, a student asked me, “Why it is I can stay awake for you but not for my 10 am class?” But I don’t think enthusiasm alone creates this shared energy; I also think it flourishes when students know that I see each of them as a unique individual, whose learning and progress I care deeply about. My graduate students at George Mason University, in a completely online course, remarked that despite the distance, they felt they knew me and felt that I knew them.
I am eager to engage students in the conversations that make learning meaningful, relevant, engaging, challenging, and energizing.
Lisa R. Halverson
Updated: December 10, 2018