Participant Pedagogy

by Jesse Stommel



Learning is a stunt. We learn best when asked (or when we ask ourselves) to do something at first unimaginable. This is exactly the reason I’ve begun to wonder whether classrooms should be made to look more like reality cooking shows. On these shows, tasks (like the “Quickfire challenge” on Top Chef) have discrete parameters, sometimes only vaguely defined. “In 20 minutes, you will make _____ using _____ without doing _____.” It’s often as simple as that. The tasks are not mapped for contestants. There are no examples, rubrics, or assessment criteria. The chefs are given a space, ingredients, and tools, but they are not given elaborate instructions. They are not told which tools to use or how to use them. After a 20-minute flurry of chopping and fire, the chefs are not evaluated objectively, nor are they scored on some predetermined scale. The judges pick the winner by taste, noting their impressions -- their subjective experience -- of the food. Meanwhile, viewers judge the contestants by the character of their flurry, the keen slice of their knife, the quips they spit as they juggle arugula and salmon meat.

One of the rules of most reality cooking shows is that the chefs are not allowed recipes. They are expected to improvise in the moment -- to follow unexpected twists w/ unexpected food. They are subjected to feats of imagination, as should students be. I recently found myself in an exchange with a student about the “formatting requirements” for an essay assignment. She was rather insistent in her demand that I reveal my expectations, whether or not the paper should be 12 pt. font, double-spaced, w/ 1” margins. My response was that I had no specific demands for the work -- that she should format her assignment in the manner that felt right to her. What’s most important, I said, is that she give careful consideration to both the form and content of her work, but that I had no pre-determined or arbitrary set of formatting requirements. My instructions were intentionally vague, providing only just enough detail to make something happen, ideally something I couldn’t plan for.

It is often a force of will for me to keep from explaining -- to keep from providing details that carve out the space for learning too distinctly. What I expect from students, more than anything, is that they take their learning into their own hands -- that they do the (often difficult) work of finding the right tools and the right recipes to meet the very loose demands of an open-ended task.

No Head of the Class

I ask my students to be participants in, and not subjects of, their own learning. In Chapter 3 of Net Smart, “Participation Power,” Howard Rheingold writes, “In the world of digitally networked publics, online participation -- if you know how to do it -- can translate into real power. Participation, however, is a kind of power that only works if you share it with others” (112). Digital space allows for (and even demands) a new level, and a new kind, of participation. There is no “head of the class” in an online learning environment, not even the illusion of one. Students must, instead, construct their own strategies, without a recipe, in the moment. And they should even be called upon to help map the terrain in which that can happen.

Teo Bishop asks, in “A Letter From a Hybrid Student,” “What is the place for a student in a discussion about learning in the digital landscape?” Put simply, pedagogy is the domain, first and foremost of students. Teaching is not an act with any intrinsic value. It’s only useful insofar as it works to facilitate -- to build a space for -- learning. However, student-centered does not mean teacher-absent. The notion of participant pedagogy does not undermine or eliminate, but rather clarifies, the role of the teacher, which is to model -- to embolden other learners to experiment more (and more wildly). The other role of the teacher is to provide a safe space for the activity of the class -- a safe space for the risks students are asked to take.

The phrase “active learning” has become a cliche’, because all learning is necessarily active. It simply isn’t “learning” if it’s not. The term “participant pedagogy” suggests something more than just active learning. It suggests learning that is both active and also reflective, both lively and also voracious. Howard Rheingold calls this “deliberate participation” (145). Critical pedagogy asks teachers (and institutions) to examine their own practices, but it also asks students to examine those practices and to mold them to fit the specific needs of their specific situation. Learning demands both intentionality and play. Likewise, the contestants that come out on top in reality cooking shows are the ones that don’t merely follow directions but carefully and creatively reimagine them.

Some Additional Material to Explore

Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, “Participant Pedagogy: a #digped Discussion” and the storify of the ensuing #digped chat
Howard Rheingold, “Toward Peeragogy
Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel, "Experiments in Mass Collaboration"
A video account of one of the classes described in the above article
Anya Kamenetz, “The Edupunk’s Guide to a DIY Credential
Stephen Downes’s review of Kamenetz’s guide