Robert D. Sutherland



Excerpt from “Letting Students Be: Report on a Continuing Experiment in Education,” College English, 32, #7 (April, 1971), 733-739 [with slight modifications]

[The premises on which my theory of education is based:]
1.  Education is a developmental process through which a person’s creative potential is realized to its fullest possible extent; it is not a commodity which can be acquired by sitting in classrooms for a requisite length of time. One cannot “get” an education; for, as process, it is something that one experiences, which results in change: a person, to a greater or less degree, “becomes” educated.

2.  A person’s education, though tending to completion, will never be completed.

3.  Teachers, too, are in the process of “becoming” educated; and, as persons still developing, are properly to be conceived as students also, fellow to their pupils, engaged with them in a joint exploration, pursuing truth and increased enlightenment.

4   For the joint learning experience to be most effective, teachers should be colleagues to their students, superior to them only in a kind of knowledge and experience which both fully acknowledge, but which entitles the teacher only to be a guide and resource person, not an arbiter of what truth is; if teachers are honest, they will admit that they do not have all the answers, that even in their professed discipline they have much to learn. As colleagues, teachers and students have much to learn from each other.

5.   In learning together and from each other, teachers and students can best benefit from each other’s peculiar insights and knowledge if they regard themselves as equals, free to be open and honest with one another—in short, if they can create a sense of sharing and community.

6.   A community of colleagues can be established only if students and teachers accept each other and each other’s ideas with respect and trust; openness can be achieved only if the classroom context is free from fear; teachers must not fear students, and students must not fear teachers; all must be free to be themselves.

7.   Learning—and education, which in large measure is learning how to learn—can best occur in a context of freedom, where no one is afraid of making mistakes, and mistakes themselves are taken as further opportunities for learning.

8.   In order to insure a context of freedom, and a community of colleagues based on trust, teachers must give up their fear-inspiring role of public evaluator and judge. Students cannot easily feel free to be themselves if they feel they have to please the instructor in order to get a good grade for the course. Too frequently, “working for a grade” compromises students’ personal integrity through inducing cutthroat competition, gamesmanship of various types, servile acceptance of what should have been challenged, passivity, refusal to express opinion felt to be contrary to what the teacher wants or expects, “brown-nosing,” and cheating. All of these are detrimental to education as defined.

9.   As long as teachers are required to turn in grades for students’ transcripts, the twin purposes of maintaining community and furthering the students’ education can best be served by having the students themselves evaluate their performance in the course and assign the grades they feel that they have earned.

10.  A  community of learning can succeed only if all members work actively for its establishment and maintenance. All members must feel a deep and sincere concern for the education of each one of their colleagues and contribute what they can to the total experience of the group.

11.  For community to come about, everyone in the group must know everybody else well; thus, the instructor and students must know each other well.

12.  If learning—and education—is to be maximally achieved, students must feel that they have a real stake in the way their learning is taking place; they must have a participatory voice in the conduct and planning of the course, in the criticism of the experience, and in the establishment of criteria by which the quality of the learning that is taking place may be evaluated.

13.  Learning is most productive and meaningful when students desire to learn, when they see the knowledge they are acquiring as useful, relevant, and interesting. Knowledge so acquired is better retained, more capable of synthesis, and more able to be effectively used. Through setting up their own goals and strategies for learning, students come to know themselves, refine their values, and develop their judgment. Aiding them in this task, the teacher should provide suggestions, critiques, necessary information, and opportunities for self-evaluation.

14.  Education (but not learning necessarily) is a self-motivated process; it progresses to that extent which the student desires and allows. It follows that students must take responsibility for their own educations.

15.  A sense of responsibility is not innate, but something which must be learned; it can best be learned by the students’ having to be responsible for their own decisions and actions and their resulting consequences. Students can learn responsibility only by knowing that they are in fact responsible.

16.  Learning which contributes to education must not only be desired by the student, but also be pleasurable, a source of enjoyment. Insofar as possible, learning experiences should be infused with an element of play, with a sense of adventure, exploration, discovery, and delight.

17.  When feasible, learning should be the result of discovery processes, in which students generate their own knowledge, and not merely of the instructor’s transmission of canned information and insights. Knowledge discovered by students in their own way becomes part of them—comes to be them—in a way that spoon-fed knowledge cannot.

18.  Knowledge thus acquired should contribute to the ends of conceptualization, inductive generalization, and the student’s power to extrapolate from the known to the unknown. It should lead to further knowledge. Knowledge which does not fuse with other knowledge into broad syntheses capable of being related to the real world of action and application, but which remains inert as isolated bits of factual information, contributes little to education, but actually works against it.





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