Monthly Archives: November 2014

Guest Blogger: Elise Sammons (UBC Political Science) Simplify and Complicate: The Paradoxical Role of an Educator

I have heard many educators express how much they love the feeling they get when one of their students first understands a new concept, or when a student who has struggled with a skill or idea has finally had a break-through and has learned that skill or comprehended that idea.  In my short teaching experience, I have had a few moments like these and have found them rewarding.  But what I really love about teaching are the moments when I have challenged a student and maybe even left them feeling a little confused about the world.  It’s not that I enjoy stressing out my students; it’s that I think one of the greatest parts of a university education is the chance to be exposed to different ideas and new ways of thinking.   University is a chance to re-evaluate your own opinions, and to give some thought as to why you think the way you do.

Working as a teaching assistant with Vantage has given me the opportunity to more fully reflect on my teaching and learning experiences, and to begin the process of developing my own teaching strategy.  One of the concepts that I have been pondering recently is the idea of a teacher’s role.  Ironically, I have come to the conclusion that two key aspects of a teacher’s role are to simplify things for their students, and to complicate things for their students.   Though these ideas are opposites, I do not think that they are at odds when you consider the role of a teacher as a whole.

Clearly, it is important that teachers simplify concepts for students.  By simplify, I do not mean that a teacher’s role is to dumb-down the material, but rather than teachers explain concepts and illuminate theories by breaking them down for students or providing context or examples that help students to comprehend big ideas.  Teachers should want to impart knowledge to their students, to simplify the course material so that students can understand it. Our students at Vantage, just like many first year students, are dealing with the experience of learning new concepts, adjusting to the expectations and norms at university as compared with high school, and also learning new discipline-specific vocabularies.  They need their Professors and teaching assistants to clearly explain new terms, and to break-down new ideas so that they can make sense of them.  However, I do not think that this is the only role of teachers.

Especially at the university level, students should be called upon to think critically, to question some of their own assumptions, and some of the assumptions in the material that they are learning.  I think as a teacher assistant, I have a responsibility to encourage my students to explore their own ideas, and to invite them into some of the debates that exist within Political Science.  In my own undergraduate experience, I had the experience of taking courses with a Professor who had a knack for reducing complex ideas and case studies from international relations down to four or five bullet points.  He was excellent at explaining ideas in a way that made sense, and made them easy to memorize.  However, I was left wondering about what was never said.  I never felt as though it was okay for me to have a different opinion, and I knew that the world I saw around me was nowhere near as neat and tidy as the explanations he offered.  It made me wonder if political science dealt with the real world or some bizarre parallel universe that was far less complex.  I found that the courses that got me really excited about political science and academia were the courses that acknowledged the complexities of the real world, and encouraged me to engage with some of the debates within the discipline.

As I continue to reflect on this idea of the responsibility of a teacher to offer understanding and knowledge, versus the responsibility of a teacher to address the complexities of our world, and to invite students to explore these complexities, I am searching for a balance.  I am aware that some students are more interested in having the concepts of political science simplified.  They may have less background knowledge, or less interest in the subject matter; they may simply want to get through this class and earn a passing grade.  Other students, whether because they have a pre-existing interest or some prior training in the subject, may be ready for more, and may just be waiting to be engaged in a deeper conversation that will provide them with valuable ideas and skills to understanding the real world around them.  All students have a right to understand the basic concepts of the course and should have the opportunity to gain that knowledge, but even students who are in the class simply because it is required, may find that they become engaged with and excited about the material because their teachers took the time to challenge the students’ assumptions and to encourage them to think critically about the world in which they live.