This is an opinion letter on the benefits of a community-centered classroom, counterarguments to any objections to such a classroom, and ways to begin implementing one.
I am a neuroscientist who focuses on neuroplasticity, learning, and memory. I have taught as both a TA and an Lecturer in universities since 2014 and have also had training in biology education and pedagogy. I am a neurodivergent first-generation college student who is a white, cis/het man. I understand the difficulties of being a first-generation student, but I have also had the privilege of being widely accepted as belonging in academia without question.
While there are a growing number of educators who have embraced a community-centered classroom, many others have not yet done so. In this opinion piece I will look at some reasons why educators may be reluctant to utilize community-centered classrooms. I will discuss easy ways to begin implementation as well as some basic foundations that should be set to ensure student success.
There are many factors that contribute to reluctance to use a community-centered classroom, from a lack of familiarity with the concept to skepticism or downright hostility. This can be attributed to the radical departure from the traditional western classroom style, where the teacher is conceived of as imparting knowledge to their students in a clear hierarchy. And while some instructors are unwilling (or feel they are unable to) give up this power, others may be skeptical as to how to implement these ideas in a large, traditional lecture hall. And it does take some work; the lecture is in many ways the most efficient method of disseminating ideas to a large group of people. But it is also well known to be the worst possible method of actually trying to teach someone. Community-centered classrooms offer students an environment in which learning and discussion is encouraged. Students can make mistakes without being made to feel humiliated. And cooperation amongst students is encouraged, as opposed to the traditional ideas of students competing against each other for a grade. Some may feel that competition amongst the students is a good thing, as that is what the “real” world is like. However, this overly simplistic (and quite frankly cruel) view is incorrect when one looks at the actual real world. Good bosses do not want their employees competing with each other, as that would distract from competing against other companies. Humans, be it in business or any other venture, naturally operate in teams. We are a social species and the view that individuals must compete against each other is just plain wrong (not to mention its disturbingly social-Darwinist underpinnings).
In order to build a community based classroom the instructor needs to shift their focus. Traditionally the instructor is envisioned as a distributor of knowledge, but this is not the best way to build community. The instructor should work to facilitate discussion instead of merely lecturing. This is perhaps easiest accomplished via the Socratic method, but be sure to encourage discussion between students. It can be easy for the discussion to devolve to the instructor and the most engaged students, and while the listening students will get more from this than from a lecture, it is still ideal to encourage as many students as are comfortable to join the discussion. The instructor should work to guide the discussion and to correct any misinformation that comes up (but this must be done in a way that shows that the misinformation is clearly incorrect). They can also use their experience and knowledge to add additional context to the discussion that the students may not have.
The instructor also must work to include a diversity of viewpoints from the class, if possible. Diversity of opinions and ways of thinking allows us to interrogate our own ways of thinking and to see unconscious biases we may have. This does need to be done in a thoughtful way, as the instructor needs to be wary of turning any minority student into a tokenized representative of their group. This is especially true for instructors from a majority group. It is not the job of the minority group to educate the majority. The majority group must educate itself (and sadly many members from the majority group will only listen to others from their own group, so this will hopefully get around that bias).
A clear code of conduct needs to be communicated to the students at the beginning of the semester. This needs to be enforced and followed by everyone, including the instructor. Viewpoints should be respected and not dismissed (except for any bigoted/prejudiced view, these must be dismissed quickly, but the reason why must be explained).
Work to build critical thinking by focusing on thought processes instead of only focusing on the facts (facts are important but can easily be looked up, the critical thinking process is what allows a person to more accurately evaluate claims). If a student answers a question incorrectly, ask them to explain their reasoning. Work to foster a discussion amongst the students in order to build their knowledge base without discouraging them. Try to encourage students to focus on understanding processes instead of memorizing facts.
Some instructors may be eager to try these methods in a small classroom, but be unsure how to implement them in a large lecture hall. There are several simple methods to begin with. An easy one is to incorporate breakout groups. The instructor poses a question to the class and then has the students work with their neighbors in groups of 3-5 to answer it. After allowing 1-3 minutes discussion the groups then begin offering their answers and explanations, allowing for a larger discussion to take place. Alternatively, the instructor can take advantage of technology to quickly survey the students opinions on a matter and use the results to foster discussion.