Hi Listers,

     Have you had to overcome obstacles to implementing student centered
learning techniques?

     I thought it would be interesting to hear from people who have had
to overcome problems when you initially implemented student centered
learning approaches such as cooperative or collaborative learning,
problem or project based learning, inquiry based learning, etc. Have you
had problems with students, administrators, other teachers, evaluations,
etc?????? We have discussed reasons why cooperative learning is resisted
by administrators, students, other teachers, and parents (K-12). What
have you done to address some of the resistance factors and how have you
persisted in the face of difficulties or challenges.

    Please leave no stone unturned. Even little problems you have dealt
with would be helpful to hear about for teachers starting out with
student centered learning and/or for those who are experienced but have
not yet encountered your particular problem.

    Please respond to the list to generate additional discussion on this
topic or e-mail me directly. I will archive the responses on my web
site. Thanks in advance for your collaboration.

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MY less than cooperative encounter with Attilla the department chair

     For the first 6 years of my tenure and Cape Cod Community College
and prior to that I developed an interactive lecture format for
teaching. Lots of lecturing with questions for individual students
interspersed during the lecture. After starting a doctoral program
(1982) where I had the opportunity to use cooperative and collaborative
learning techniques I began introducing these approaches into my
engineering and mathematics courses. This is where my story begins and
my evaluations from my department chair changed.

     I encountered problems mainly from my department chair, who was
supported by the academic dean, when I initially switched from an
interactive lecture format to a cooperative learning approach. The
transition did not take place overnight but evolved over several years.
However, when I first started to make the transition I received
criticisms from my department chairman after a few class observations.
He felt that the classes were noisy, students were not always focussed
on the material (mathematics), and I did not lecture enough. These
observations were made despite the fact that I had met with the chair
prior to the class evaluation to make sure he was aware of the changes I
had made in my class procedures. We met after the class and I explained
the reasons for his observations and how they fit into the overall
cooperative learning strategy. He gave me a very poor evaluation with
many references for the need to change what I was doing. I followed up
by providing him with many published studies on cooperative learning, to
no avail. It turns out that he had been a biology professor at a 4 year
college and essentially "retired" to my community college. His teaching
method was straight lecture and his demeanor made it clear that he
didn't encourage student questions or any other class participation. He
also seemed to revel in the "power" of the department chair.

    A second approach I used, and still do, annoyed him to no end. I
encourage my students to use first names including mine. He considered
this to be totally unprofessional. His only rationale was that students
would not respect me if was on a familiar name basis with them. My
explanation fell on deaf ears, that my use of first names sends the
message to the students that I do not consider myself above them, but I
see students as peers. I just happen to have studied more mathematics
and teaching techniques than they have. I base this approach on my own
experiences in collaborative graduate education classes where the
professor encouraged us to use his first name. I felt quite
uncomfortable at first because this approach was a deviation from the
norm, which most other professors had established. Cooperative learning
allows and encourages students to experiment in a safe environment.
After a while I came to appreciate the use of first names in classes.
When I finished a course I felt that I was indeed approaching peer
status with the teacher. Think of how subservient you feel when you
enter a doctor's office and must address the person as Dr X. I went to a
holistic doctor and the first thing he did to put me at ease was to
suggest I call him by his first name. Quite a difference! My chairman
was very strict about the use of names and insisted upon being called
professor. I my classes I encourage all students to use my first name
but I do not insist upon it. I want them to figure out what they feel
comfortable with. For younger students and recent high school graduates
whom we expect to act like adults need to be treated as adults. I do not
use titles when I speak to my colleagues because we treat each other
with respect (most of the time) as we should our students. As an aside,
one of the things that most disturbed my son as a senior honor student
in high school was that he had to ask for a hall pass to go to the
bathroom or see his advisor. He clearly articulated the contradiction of
setting high expectations for students yet controlling their every

   To make a long story longer, I appealed the chair's poor evaluation
to the president of the college and invited him to visit my classes to
make his own evaluation. After completing three visits the president
wrote a very strong recommendation which highlighted the value he
observed in the student conversations and interactions. He removed the
chairman's critical evaluation from my personnel file. He also made it
clear that he thought the chairman should consider changing his teaching
approach and maybe I could assist him in that effort. That took care of
the problem and I have not had any problems since.

    The chairman has long since retired and I now have a very supportive
Associate Dean who evaluates my teaching. Perhaps it was my bad luck to
have started using cooperative learning techniques during this persons
stint as chairman, but in the end his challenge strengthened my resolve,
caused me to reflect critically on my philosophy of teaching and
learning, and defend my methodology, which I observed was having a very
positive effect upon the students.

    The whole evaluation resolution took about 6 months to resolve,
during which time there was a high degree of tension between myself and
the department chair. Looking back I can see that my resolve was not
only strengthened by my concern for doing what was best for my students
but also by the fact that I had received tenure the year before and
could not be fired capriciously because of one person's recommendation
plus our union contract has a strong academic freedom clause which
allows us to chose what ever teaching technique we wish.

    Over the years I have increased my use of cooperative learning in
all my classes to the point where I use this approach virtually 100% of
the time. This works well for me. Each individual must decide to what
extent they wish to involve their students in their classes and then
take what ever actions are necessary to support their approach.