Embrace the unpredictability of teaching in community colleges

A diverse community college classroom is full of opportunities for enriching, student-led discussions, says Dale Schlundt

Dale Schlundt's avatar
Palo Alto College
27 Jan 2023
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A group discussions with varied perspectives is welcome unpredictability in teaching

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Many elements of teaching are, or should be, predictable. The texts that will be employed, how the assignments will be weighted and assessed, and the time you’ll have in class offer a sense of security for the next adventure that every semester presents. Yet if your pedagogical approach truly engages students, you will find that what makes higher education worthwhile and exciting is the unpredictable, the vast diversity of human thought that only the learner can bring to the table. This is no more true than in community colleges where students with a range of backgrounds and ages learn together.

It was early in the semester of a recent Texas history course when I was reminded of how many unique inferences students will make from class discussions. The lesson was about Spain’s efforts to expand and cement its control in Texas by growing the population of people sympathetic to Spanish rule.

One student, however, voiced a very different interpretation of Spain’s colonial strategy. Instead of focusing on the value of allied people in the region, the student argued that land has always been a valuable investment, no matter what time period it is. Their takeaway was intriguing and an accurate conclusion. For most of human history, economies were agrarian based and, consequently, land based. Real estate today is as indispensable an asset as it has been in the past.

What made the answer unique to this student, though, is that she had just bought her first house. During our morning pleasantries over the previous weeks, the individual had been updating the class on their new venture. They expressed how important it was for their family to leave a valuable asset, such as a home and land, to their children. The comment added a new dimension to the discussion and grounded it in a 21st-century topic – real estate investment, a subject that younger students were potentially less familiar with. In the end, what materialised was a perfect segue that moved our examination of Texas history forward.

Every educator is cognisant of the inevitable truth that some discussions will fail to reach their expectations. Still, such unforeseeable opportunities reinforce how crucial it is to engage with students. In the context of a community college, student demographics are often diverse. Community colleges have focused on growing their dual credit student population over the past few years – students who earn both a high school and college credit through completing the course – despite the well-known hardships during the Covid pandemic. Yet community colleges also cater to older learners. This wonderful mix of diverse viewpoints offers the perfect scenario for an educator who is willing to share the stage.

One way to highlight each students’ unique perspective is to ask them to partner with a peer in five or 10 minutes of preparation for a broader class discussion, based on that week’s class readings. Much like graduate students, undergraduates are just as capable of contributing to a considered class discussion. After they choose a partner, you may ask them to identify the important lessons the content offered. Be sure to give them enough direction, but avoid placing excessive limitations on their conversation.

In a history class, they may conclude that one development surpasses all others in terms of importance but has little influence on the world today. On the other hand, as my Texas history class showed, the partners may find a lesson that is still applicable to their lives today. Or perhaps their takeaway will include a new question they otherwise would not have thought to ask. The facilitator of the class will be surprised by how advantageous those first five or 10 minutes of collaboration are for the learner. Finally, push the tables to the sides of the room and have students sit in a big circle. Sharing the results of their one-to-one analysis with the entire class, and building on them in a longer discussion, employs the vast experience of adult learners to aid in contextualising the material for those younger learners. They are engaging in peer-to-peer learning; teaching does not require a podium.

College students are indeed individuals who inherently see the world through their own lens. As educators, we should use the variety of vantage points among our students to enrich our classes. It fosters the learner’s ability to derive meaning from their past and encourages a greater sense of acceptance and inclusivity for people who come from different backgrounds. Although student-led discussions may be unpredictable, we should embrace unpredictability as an important tool within higher education.

Dale Schlundt is a faculty member at Palo Alto College and served as co-chair for the Texas Regional Alignment Network from 2017 to 2019.

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