Look for the Instruments, Listen to the Symphony

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It's the first day of class. You stand in front of the classroom, staring out at the wall of faces staring out at you.  This is your learning community for the semester--the students entrusted to you for growth, meaning-making, change for betterment and life-long impact.

You have great responsibility here.

But today, that wall of faces is still just a wall.  You have no way of knowing the individual needs, individual lives, individual gifts of the individual faces that compose that wall.  All you see is their sameness:  Students.  In your class.

Now, you could choose to see the wall all semester long.  Or, you could look out at your symphony.

Please forgive me, I'm a musician.  But--I am also a teacher, and here is what I've been thinking about:

As a teacher, do I stand in front of my classroom and envision each student holding their individual instrument?  Do I see the bassoon, the flute, the violin, the timpani?  Do I listen for the unique contribution of each instrument within the symphony before me, and do I strive to understand how the parts contribute to the whole? Do I embrace the reality that there would not be a symphony without those instruments?  And do I consider that perhaps I am just another instrument within their ranks?

I've been thinking about this due to an article that recently ran in The Chronicle, entitled Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age, by Cathy Davidson.  Although, to be more truthful it wasn't the article that made me think about it.  It was one paragraph, defined by one phrase: "collaboration by difference".

You can read the article for yourself if you want to know the context [and I suggest that you really do want to know the context, as it's very cool, and very applicable to you as a forward thinking sort of educator], but -since it has absolutely nothing to do with symphonies--allow me to explain what it was that I took away and spun into my own context:

Davidson writes that "collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction."  This is where she got me: difference is not a deficit--it's a point of distinction.  It's what makes a potentially divergent contribution important, necessary even.  And collaboration by difference means that divergence can be brought together in a meaningful and purposeful way.

Collaboration--after all--is about bringing together.  Google the word 'collaboration' and you'll find phrases like 'working together', 'joint endeavor' and 'shared goals'.  There's consensus implied in a collaboration--in the sense that these people have worked together and have come to a consensus--but more too:

A collaboration brings us beyond consensus into something new.  Using our differences to work together results in a co-construction of new territory.  It is--in its very essence--change.  And to change is to learn.

Since I desire learning to occur within my classroom, I need to allow for collaboration by difference in the underlying rules of my classroom community.  I need to see the distinctive and potentially divergent instruments sitting in front of me while I listen for the symphony.

I need to look beyond the wall.

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1 Comment

Good metaphor and a way to think about a classroom early in a semester.

Treating difference not as a deficit, but as a point of distinction is something we also talk a lot about when creating teams for a course. Particularly if you're in a course with students of varying skill levels, varying disciplines, varying academic standing, etc. Having each team with a wide variety of voices typically leads to a higher quality product at the end of the process.

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