Win-Win Thinking: An Introduction

Just one question: in your classes, who does more work—you, or your students?
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The win-win model is simple: you win when it means less mind-numbing work for you; they win when it means more meaningful and productive work for them.

The first way that win-win thinking helped me as a writing and literature teacher was in forcing me to think about how my assignments match up with how students actually learn. There is, of course, no end of pedagogical literature out there about flipped classrooms and other strategies. But here I want to simplify the issue by asking one question: in your classes, who does more work—you, or your students? If the answer is you, then you are teaching in a lose-lose model.

In my book, I address multiple lose-lose models for educators. Here, I’ll focus on one example: the first day of class.

Lose-Lose Example #1: You spend the first day of class reading your syllabus aloud, then making the students go around the room and introduce themselves to the class. You lose because you have increased their terror, and they think that you think that they can’t read. They lose because they are terrified. Terrified students do not participate in class discussions or deliver their best work.

We all need to remember that most of our students feel terrified in front of their peers and their teachers. While some of the students in class will know each other, many will not, even in a smaller school. My first goal is to help them want to be in my class with each other and with me.

So, although I hand out my syllabus on the first day, I never read it to them or go over assignments. Instead I tell them that we are going to spend the entire class period socializing. Why? Because students work better and learn more in a positive, energetic, and safe learning community. My second year of teaching I learned a marvelous way to help achieve this goal from an expert teacher and colleague, Gary Burge. He asks students to mix together in groups of three or four, learn one another’s names, and answer an easy question like “What is the most interesting movie or book you read this summer?” He does several mixers like this the first couple of weeks of class. I modified this method to suit my purposes. On the first day, I have them mix and re-mix, and then also encourage individual students to share (voluntarily) something about their new friends with the larger group.

And every step of the way I encourage them, listen to them, and explain exactly why we are doing this. After twenty years of teaching, I can’t imagine how many times I’ve repeated this phrase, or one like it: “Research clearly indicates that we learn more if we become a trusting community. The more you are engaged, the more you learn.” I tell them that I teach by discussion, and that it only works if we can be comfortable enough to take risks.

By the end of about forty-five minutes of these easy mixers, the students are feeling much more comfortable. We are laughing with each other, and they are seeing me as a human being who cares about them. Because I do.

For the final mixer of the day I distribute a photocopy of a short passage from Parker Palmer’s book, To Know as We are Known. The passage addresses the importance of community in learning any subject. I ask them to read it aloud and discuss it with their group, and then we get back to the larger class and come up with a list of things that they are willing to do to help achieve this kind of class. I also ask them what they need from me.

There are rarely surprise outcomes here. Students are smart and know a lot about being students. Completely unprovoked, they will name things like: “do the reading,” “listen to each other,” “challenge myself not to be afraid,” and so on.

From this exercise not only do the students come up with their own ideas about how to contribute to a great class, they also learn my (loosely Socratic) modus operandi for every single class session: to get the students to come up with what I want them to learn. At the end of the first day I tell them we will go over the assignments slowly over the next couple of weeks, and then I dismiss them. I do these mixers at the beginning of class for as long as I think is necessary. Win-win.

A good way to think about this win-win approach comes from one of my teaching gurus mentioned above, Parker Palmer. In his marvelous book The Courage to Teach, Palmer explains that it is a false dichotomy to pit a teacher-centered class against a student-centered class. Neither of these approaches is desirable. The first places the teacher as an expert that filters the knowledge through to the students, who remain passive. The second tends to make the class into a free-for-all therapy session.

The goal, argues Palmer, is a subject-centered class, where the teacher is a fellow learner who helps students discover what kinds of questions to ask, and how to ask them. We form a community of truth whose goal is to be in relationship with the truth and with each other.

As we try to understand the subject in the community of truth, we enter into complex patterns of communication—sharing observations and interpretations, correcting and complementing each other, torn by conflict in this moment and joined by consensus in the next. The community of truth, far from being linear and static and hierarchical, is circular, interactive, and dynamic.[1]

Wouldn’t you rather have a dynamic class than a static one? One in which it was clear to the students that you were still learning alongside of them? If you want to have a subject-centered class, it really helps to explain to the students why you want it to be this way.

There are lots of different ways to achieve a subject-centered classroom. It is your orientation, not your method, that is the issue here. As James Lang puts it, “You can’t fire the synapses in your students’ brains. For the connections to be meaningful and effective, the students have to form them. Your task is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections rather than simply lecturing at them about connections.”[3]

Embracing the students and embracing win-win thinking is essential if you want to be able to enjoy this amazing calling to the full. But this is not enough. You also need to learn how to build systems to protect energy. Because when it comes to the marathon that is the academic year, there is no question that our energy is our most precious resource. To keep from burning out, we must think hard about our own work habits, where and when we do work, and how to have a quality home life.

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