It is widely recognized among educators that student engagement is a key to academic success. Disengaged students erode the social dynamics in the classroom, have a negative impact on their peers and drop out at a high rates. Thus, it is no surprise that the desire to move students from a disengaged attitude to one of engagement has become a major goal of our pedagogical practices.
Of course, student engagement has many meanings. Engagement might be measured by certain behaviors, as when students write effectively and with nuance; it might be felt in certain emotions, as when students express excitement about the ideas they encounter; or it might be understood by way of certain cognitive activities, as when students demonstrate an ability to analyze and synthesize in sophisticated ways. 1
Yet, despite its many dimensions, engagement itself seems too impoverished a pedagogical ideal. We ought to aspire to something more for our students and ourselves.
Let us move from the ideal of engagement toward that of genuine cooperation.
Strange as it sounds, focus on engagement remains too student centered. Its primary emphasis is on changing the habits, behaviors and attitudes of students, and often fails to consider those habits, behaviors and attitudes of faculty that close off the possibility of cooperative education.
Cooperative education takes seriously the social and reciprocal nature of teaching and learning. It recognizes that students, both individually and in the aggregate, have something to teach even as they have much to learn. It empowers teachers to relinquish authoritarian control, and encourages them to weave their expertise into the community of learning that emerges dynamically in the courses they teach.
Cooperative education understands that the teacher-student relationship is reciprocal, even if it is also asymmetrical. It is reciprocal insofar as students teach and teachers learn, but asymmetrical insofar as the teacher retains a certain privilege as one who has learned and thus has earned a certain expertise.
Cooperative education does not seek to elide this asymmetry, but rather, to invite teachers to carefully consider how their authority operates in the delicate ecologies of learning in which they participate. How we as teachers respond to this invitation is critical; for our authority is operative in everything we do. It can be used to close off discussion and shut down debate, or it can open students and, on our better days, ourselves, to new connections, richer and deeper insights and surprising discoveries.
Cooperative education, then, must cultivate certain excellences in those faculty and students committed to it. It will need to teach and learn openness, comfort with ambiguity, generosity and equity. It will need to affirm the value of difference, embrace diversity and seek common ground. It will need to be animated by mutual respect for the experience of students and for the wisdom of teachers. It will need to empower students to take ownership of their education and faculty to move from imposition to collaboration.
Cultivating these excellences is no easy task, but they can be learned, if they are practiced.
The American philosopher (who was also a Dean at Columbia University), Frederick Woodbridge, has articulated the sense of cooperation that informs this vision of education:
“There is cooperation in the pursuit of knowledge, an interchange of discoveries, opinions, and results, a communication which would put agreement in the place of disagreement. We are not left each to his own devices, but employ the aid of others.” 2
For Woodbridge, this sort of cooperation is rooted ultimately in the human ability to work together with Nature in such a way that we are able to respond in meaningful ways to the world we encounter. The pedagogical significance of this robust naturalism is that we humans are deeply cooperative beings who naturally learn by working with one another in order to come to a deeper understanding of the world in which we live, together.
- For a discussion of the different senses of engagement, see, Harris, Lois Ruth. “A Phenomenographic Investigation of Teacher Conceptions of Student Engagement in Learning.” The Australian Educational Researcher 35, no. 1 (2008): 57–79. doi:10.1007/BF03216875, 58-9
- Woodbridge, Frederick James Eugene. An Essay on Nature. New York: Columbia university press, 1940, 209