Balancing structure and process

When I teach college classes, I announce on the first day that I do not give a grade for class participation. I explain that I did not speak up during class when I was a student. I know from experience that silence can mean someone like myself is thinking deeply, reflecting on what is being said and tying new information into other understandings. In classes with participation grades, I've seen students make comments "just to get a grade". Their contributions are contrived and pressured. With no grade for participation, the students' inputs are valuable, thoughtful and insightful.

In my view, a grade for class participation imposes too much structure. It derails initiative and sets up a system of compliance. The natural process of contributing to the common good is corrupted. Participation deteriorates into compliance and people pleasing. This is a problem in architectural, instructional and community design as well.

A house may be designed with a large formal dining room and a small eating area in the kitchen. This is a good structural design for a family who's dining process involves lots of entertaining and eating out. It's a dysfunctional design for families that routinely eat at home, informally and everywhere but the dining room. The process of the family dining dictates how effectively the design functions, not the designer.

In a blogging community, there are bloggers and commenters who show up on a blog posting page. There are also quoters and linkers who take the ideas further in other blogs. It's the lurkers who go unrecognized or get blamed for failed communities or instructional designs. They don't eat in the dining room "like they're supposed to" according to the structure that overrules their process. Their silence is seen as a problem, rather than a contribution. The structure of instruction or community formation was designed for participation only, not for processes of silent reflection and assimilation.

Self-directed learners naturally balance their own active and passive processes. They have a natural sense to take timeouts to question their thinking, troubleshoot their misconceptions and challenge their assumptions. They do not impose too much structure on their learning process by requiring themselves to disregard their confusion and forge ahead regardless of feeling overwhelmed.

Effective designs for instruction or communities give learners lots to think about, easy ways to discuss it, and time to sort it out on their own. The process of the learner rules. They experience the freedom and support systems to silently absorb the input and contribute when and how it works for them.

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