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Colonizing the Student: “Creating Diversity and Difference”

by Stephen Hebert on Sunday - 31 January 2010

in Education

In my previous post, I mentioned that the teacher’s role was not to colonize the student’s brain in hopes of creating a perfect clone. This, in my view, is a dysfunctional student-teacher relationship.

Rather, I’d like to promote diversity and independent thinking.

A young mind is so malleable. As a teacher, I have the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on a student. These impressions can come in many shapes or forms: academic, professional, personal, etc. An impression is a two-way street made up both of what I am trying to convey (the message) and how the student receives or interprets that message. Therefore, I am not in complete control of the impression that I make on a given student. This is obvious enough when I walk into my classroom every day. Some students love me; others deplore me. Am I treating those students that love me any differently? Probably not.1 As a teacher, I am putting signals out there; it is up to the student to receive and interpret. How they receive and interpret is completely out of my hands.

This brings me to today’s thought experiment:

Creating Diversity and Difference.

Excuse the following theoretical digression. It’s going somewhere, I promise.

Personally, I believe that an author is only in partial control over the meaning that is put into a text. The author can try and try and try to create an exact sense of meaning that expresses 100% of his/her thought, but at some point the conversation must be completed by the reader. The text reaches its full, but not complete,2 meaning at the point in which reader and author connect via this shared experience.3 Both reader and author are working together to produce meaning.

The classroom is a text. Under traditional models of teaching, the teacher would be considered the author and the students are the readers. As the teacher attempts to convey monolithic meaning, the students receive and interpret the monolith in their own ways through their own viewpoints. Thus, if I have 15 students, then 16 of us are producing meaning: 1 author + 15 readers = 16 makers or meaning.

That’s quite a few viewpoints, and, no doubt, there will be diverse thoughts and opinions. However, in this model, who is able to benefit from those diverse viewpoints? Only one person: the teacher who is the only one hearing all viewpoints. So, from the student’s vantage, only one actual meaning has been produced: the conversation between a particular student and teacher. If we are student-focused in our educational modeling, then we must agree that this model does not afford the student the opportunity to hear from multiple viewpoints. In fact, depending on the student’s academic and mental acumen and leanings, this model in effect creates one monolithic teaching from the student’s vantage.

How then do we overcome this? How do we create an environment in which a student can take advantage of more than one production of meaning? The answer is obvious: open up the text to more authors. If we have 16 people coexisting in the classroom, then it is possible for the student to be participating as a reader/receiver in 15 different conversations at a time as the students publish thoughts through various means (discussion, blogs, message boards, etc.). In this model, an incredible amount of difference is being created. Because meaning is really the product of a handshake between reader and author, each student would be considering 15 different conversations, meaning that there is potential for 225 different interpretations of the classroom-text.4

OK. So, we can open up the text, allowing students to take part both as author and reader. Great. What’s the point? How does this serve the student? Is it constructive or chaotic? That’s the next topic…


  1. Or, if I am, it is not an intentional, conscious decision to do so, and I apologize to all.
  2. Meaning is never really “complete.” This business is always unfinished and imperfect.
  3. Apologies to my friends out there who find me too postmodern.
  4. In reality, there will be fewer as many students will produce meanings that are similar enough to be considered “same.” But, you get the idea, right?

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