I'm in the process on writing a 'reflection' on a chapter in one of my texts on participatory language teaching. Participatory teaching (language or otherwise) involves a lot of power sharing between students and teachers - allowing students to take more of a role in deciding what and how they are going to learn. While there are many aspects of participatory teaching (language or otherwise) that I think can be incorporated into a classroom in a useful manner, I think the teacher/professor/instructor should always be careful not to hand too much power over to the student. The student is still the student for a reason. If he could teach himself, he wouldn't be taking the class. I don't say this because I'm a teacher and want to keep hold of the reins of power in the classroom (well, maybe to a certain extent...). My biggest problem with this concept dates back to some experiences I had in high school. I've been writing about it in my reflection, and I'm trying really hard not to reference the Verve Pipe, but...
Over the winter break spanning 1993-1994 (while I was in 9th grade), two of my teachers (English and Biology) attended a conference on participatory teaching which really inspired them. During the fall semester, our classes had been very normal and boring. My English teacher spent a lot of time drilling us on parts of speech (which was annoying, as my peers who studied with other teachers were reading Romeo and Juliet), and my biology teacher gave daily science lectures. Normal but boring. After Christmas break, both teachers came back, having attended said conference, full of new ideas on how they planned to completely reinvent our classrooms. In both classes, the teachers decided, would be run as “businesses.” We divided ourselves up into “departments,” and each “department” was supposed to be in charge of teaching part of our Language Arts or Biology textbook. One group was elected to be management, and their job was (ostensibly) to oversee the rest of us and make sure we were on-task. At the end of each grading period, we were supposed to meet with our group members and determine what grades we felt we deserved.
At the beginning of the process, we were all very excited. This was something new, something we’d never done in a class before. However, it was problematic from the get-go. The “popular” kids were all elected to management, and friends formed their own “departments.” The teachers insisted that we (the students) were in control, and that we were responsible for planning and executing all tasks. For the first few weeks, we struggled to do some work – but as our teachers had taken to giving us no guidance, English and Biology rapidly devolved into gossip hour and study hall for other classes. We had to turn in final projects by the end of each grading period, and of course we all scraped something together at the last minute… but as we were deciding our own grades, none of us put much effort into it (especially after the first grading period ended and we learned that our teachers really had been serious about letting us decide our own grades).
I can see some merit to the general way in which my English and Biology teachers attempted to run our classes that semester; however, it is obvious to me that these specific projects were a failure. I did not learn anything in either of those classes that semester, other than how to do the bare minimum to scrape by. We, as ninth graders, were not mature enough to handle the complete responsibility for our education that our teachers turned over to us – and being immature and irresponsible, we took advantage of this opportunity to goof off as much as possible. This is one of the dangers in taking participatory education too far – it expects a lot from students, and often expects more than the students are able or willing to give. In my high school English and Biology classes, things would have gone a lot better had “management” been the teacher, as opposed to the cheerleaders and the football stars. We needed someone to guide us, to show us what we needed to do and how we needed to do it – and to make sure we stayed on task. Instead, our teachers turned the classroom completely over to us, and we took advantage of it in the worst possible way. After all, we were only freshmen.