Who discovered Pluto?
A colleague described this brief exchange he had with his young daughter as they crossed Tombaugh Street in Flagstaff, Arizona. My colleague, ever the professor, pointed out that the street was named for local astronomer Clyde Tombaugh who had discovered Pluto in 1930. His daughter promptly informed him, “Walt Disney discovered Pluto.”
With the characteristic candor of a child, she gave her dad a glimpse of how the world looked through the lens of her six years—her vantage point. His reference to the astronomer came similarly from his accumulation of knowledge and experiences. From their distinct vantage points they each gave other accurate and surprising information neither of them had expected. In this moment, each was learning, and each was teaching.
The exchanges between learners and teachers in a college classroom involve a far more complex calculus than the brief exchange between my friend and his daughter on Tombaugh Street. In its simplicity, however, this incident introduces the merits of becoming aware of the vantage points learners bring to their learning beyond what we might assume or predict. How can we draw out glimpses of students’ vantage points to augment what our experiences lead us to expect even before we know students’ names? What might doing so contribute to teaching and learning?
Using inquiry as a pedagogical tool in an unexpected way
Professionals in most fields use tools to view something not visible to them, yet something necessary to inform the next steps in their process. Using their accumulated knowledge and experiences they select tools that fit their purpose—a navigation device like a sextant or compass, a magnification instrument like a microscope or telescope, a measuring or monitoring tool like an altimeter or hydrometer. What these professionals gain through the use of these tools is information to help them select a course of action. Their professional vantage point is sharpened by what they learn and what it adds to what they already know.
As college teachers, our knowledge of our discipline and our experiences in teaching it guides us in selecting tools we believe will lead to student learning. From our professional vantage point, we make informed decisions about which teaching methods, resources, and assessments will most likely lead to student learning. Tools like quiz and exam results, students’ lab notes, their field experiences, and their contributions or silence during class discussions are among the ways we use to confirm or revise what experience tells us to expect. What we learn with these tools influences how we proceed with further instruction. As the number of times we teach a particular course increases, so do the patterns of predictability we have about how and why learners respond as they learn the course material. We might share Professor Jerry Farber’s hope that “On any given day of any given course we would like to be able to pull something out of a file drawer, walk into class and run it.” But our experiences semester-after-semester lead us at some level to the same realization as Professor Farber: “But the act of teaching is nothing we can lock up . . . The very next time I walk into a class, I will be, once again be somewhere I have never been” (“Teaching and Presence,” Pedagogy
8(2): 223, 2008).
Each semester, each course, and in each class, each student’s presence in the course is rooted in their particular vantage point. If we could get a glimpse from their sightline, what might we learn that would augment what we have been taught by our previous teaching? A vantage point
in this sense is different from a reaction we might seek from students as a semester evolves. We are used to using inquiry as the tool to gain some information about how the course content looks from their perspective: We ask for their opinions (“What do you think about that point?”) or their judgments (“What is the strongest argument made in this reading?” or “In this situation, what process should be followed?).
With a slight pivot, we can use the tool of inquiry and turn it from focusing on learning about students’ grasp of the course content to learning about how they see their process of learning it.
Brief moments of insight gained from inquiry into vantage points
Consider if you are in a room with others and are asked to put on someone else’s eyeglasses. While you may see clearly out of your own glasses, when you put on someone else’s the very same images in front of you may appear fuzzy, distorted, or even barely recognizable. The following two examples illustrate how a specifically directed inquiry can make visible a small piece of the vantage point students have of their own learning. Viewing the teaching and learning process from their vantage point is not time-intensive nor does it supplant content, but it can make important contributions to the teaching and learning interchanges that follow.
When a discussion seems to be going nowhere:
Many times I have asked a leading question during a class discussion, only to have it met with silence and sideways glances. Students seemingly start shrink in their chairs trying to minimize the chances I will ask them directly. Drawing from my experiences I try a few alternatives—a metaphor, an example, a follow-up question, even longer silence. If their silence persists, I mentally go through what I can predict are the reasons for their lack of response—they did not read the assignment, they did not complete the problem set, they are not paying attention. From the vantage point of my past experiences, I then decide how to proceed.
Considering (as Farber points out) that in this class, with these students I am someplace I have never been, here is a moment to shift the inquiry from their knowledge of content to their view of learning the content.
“Let’s pause here.” My silence follows.
From their vantage point they might be expecting me make a point about their lack of preparation. Instead, I say: “Please help me understand what makes that question a difficult one to answer.” My anticipatory silence follows. I have invited them to help me learn something about the question I just asked. Since they are used to responding to “why” questions from many instructors, the request from a teacher to “help me understand…” is an unexpected one. Sometimes one or two students will venture a response, other times my request sparks many insightful comments. Usually something that does come up leads back to the topic and purpose of the initial discussion.
When students turn in a major assignment:
When students complete a major paper or project, my previous experiences with that assignment have helped me judge the assignment’s effectiveness for assessing student learning. When it is an assignment I have used before I often make revisions based on how previous students responded to the assignment. The comments I hear floating around the room the day assignments are due are not particularly helpful: “This was hard”; “We did not have enough time”; “Her instructions could have been clearer”. Taking a moment to shift my inquiry—to learn from their vantage point—I ask them to turn the assignment over and finish a variation of this sentence: “As I worked on this assignment, the concept/theory/process it helped me understand was ___________ because___________ .” (There are a variety of ways to pose this inquiry no matter the instructional format). They teach me something they might not even have articulated to themselves. Sometimes what I learn when they give me this glimpse from their vantage point confirms what I thought, but most often it augments my view.
The form of inquiry used in these examples shares three fundamental characteristics: the inquiry is authentic, strategic, and purposeful. The question or sentence stem solicits information I do not have and would like to know. The inquiry is strategic in that it is integrated into the contexts of teaching and learning at a related point in the instruction and is not randomly superimposed. And the inquiry is purposeful, because the information I am asking for will provide details that could influence my instructional choices for moving forward.
Three dispositions that accompany the productive use of this inquiry
Shifting the focus of inquiry in this way is more a disposition than a strategy. The atmosphere where these small moments of inquiry can thrive is characterized by respect, a willingness to learn from the unexpected, and a commitment to engage. A multi-layered respect is the starting point. Those layers include respect for learners, their learning, respect for the complexity of the content we are working through together, and respect for the inter-relationship between teaching and learning, and teachers and learners.
Welcoming the unexpected requires a certain vulnerability, a willingness to suspend judgment for a moment if the new information comes across as a challenge. But layers of respect can be built in just such moments when our response is an honest one: “This surprised me because ___________.”
A third important disposition is the intent to respond. Near mid-semester I have used a variation of sentence stems I have seen frequently referred to in resources on teaching. I ask students to help me understand what assists their learning by completing these sentences: “In learning material to this point in the semester it helps me when ___________ because ____________; it would help me if ___________ because ___________ .” We owe students a response to what they contribute. They learn from what we have learned when we point out some threads among the responses, and they learn from our honest accounting of what we will continue or adjust as the course moves forward based on their feedback. Being transparent about why we will not incorporate or adjust what some students have addressed gives them an insight from our vantage point.
The strength of this use of moments of inquiry into students’ vantage points (or “sightlines”) is in the interactions
it seeds rather than the reactions
The concluding point
Help me learn something about learning in this course from your vantage point.
This simple request is at the base of an inquiry that enables learners and teachers to contribute and gain focused information related to learning. Teaching is a communicative act foregrounding communication about content. Within the larger picture of semester-long study, it can be small moments of authentic, purposeful, strategic inquiry that enrich the learning we aim to help students achieve.
Can a faculty member ever really “see” from undergraduate vantage point?
Nathan, R. My Freshman Year: What a College Professor Learned by Being a Student
. New York: Penguin, 2005.
Even though this book is more than a decade old, the author’s insights into how using her sabbatical year to enroll as a freshman ultimately helped her think more deeply about college teaching has merit beyond the time in which it was written.
Where can I see examples of faculty making their vantage point visible to students?
Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project, UNLV (Provost’s Office) https://www.unlv.edu/provost/transparency/tilt-higher-ed-examples-and-resources
Where can I eavesdrop on vantage points of students?
Caplan, Paula J., and Ford, Jordan C. “The Voices of Diversity: What Students of Diverse Races/Ethnicities and Both Sexes Tell Us About Their College Experiences…” APORIA 6(3), 2014. Full report available at http://diversity.missouristate.edu/assets/diversity/Voices_of_Diversity_Project_Caplan_Ford.pdf
Davis, Jeff. The First-Generation Student Experience
. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2010.
Michigan State U Journalism Students. To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching.
Michigan State U, 2016.
The “Office Hour” video from Northern Arizona University: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDK8rtcQyFA
Dr. Linda K. Shadiow is a professor emerita at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.