Tim Gunn & the role of a teacher

As mentioned in previous posts, I've been spending a lot of time reading research and thinking about my Master's Project. I'm working on a self-directed learning1 unit in which students choose their own specific topics of study within a broad category (i.e. climate change) and follow their interests and passions while documenting and publishing their learning as they go.

Through all of this, my biggest struggle has been working out exactly what the ideal teacher's role should be in this type of environment. There needs to be guidance, scaffolding, and assessment, but how does a teacher do those things effectively in a self-directed learning environment?

I knew regularly talking to students and discussing their progress and understanding of their topic and learning was a must, but I was struggling to picture how that looks.

Then it hit me.

I've watched a few episodes of Project Runway2, and though I'm not really big into fashion design, I did realize there was something relevant going on here. For each episode, contestants are given some design challenge (i.e., make a more fashionable postal uniform) and given a limited time frame in which to complete their outfit. After working for awhile, Tim Gunn (one of the hosts) goes around and talks to each of the contestants about their designs. It's brilliant.

Conversation, questioning, and critique: Clip 1

Tim Gunn goes around to the contestants asking them how they're doing and to explain their design. He'll point out things that don't look right, offer suggestions for improving the design, praise designs that are well-developed, and overall do what he can to help and support the designers without interfering too much with their particular senses of fashion. Tim Gunn doesn't force his will on them but he does learn a great deal about who they are as a designer and their ideas behind the design. The best part? At 1 min 25 sec: "I don't want you to ask me that. I want you to ask yourself that." Pushing for self-assessment. Nice.

Joining a community of practice: Clip 2

In this clip Tim is more forceful. Wendy (a contestant) designs clothes for lower-end/more practical uses. However, the focus of the show (and that of the judges) is definitely "high fashion." Tim takes her aside, validates her viewpoint as being important and necessary, but goes on to suggest that if she wants to be successful on Project Runway that she rethink her viewpoint. In essence, Tim is trying to help Wendy join the "high fashion" community of practice.

Notable differences

The designers on the show are already members of a community of practice. They want to be fashion designers and, for the most part, they are familiar with what it means to be a designer and are motivated to pursue that route. In my 9th grade science class not all students will be as interested in the material. Those that are interested in the material are probably not familiar with what it means to be a scientist or act scientifically. Fix? More support. Tim Gunn stops by once or twice in a 4-6 hour design session. I'll have to be constantly circulating and talking to my students. Giving them stronger nudges than he does & providing more guidance.

Application

Teaching students to be able to regulate their own learning and follow their own interests will probably be more challenging than it should be in our schools. Students have been trained to expect the teacher to tell them what to study, how to study it, and when to study it. It will take time and support to help students begin to take control of their own learning. To do that, the teacher is going to have to step back from the lead role, and start a role similar to Tim Gunn's. Talk to individual students or groups. Give feedback, offer suggestions, but allow students to express their personality and follow their interests.

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  1. hat tip to @msansonetti for helping me discover that name (self-directed learning). I found lots of great research using those search terms.  (back)
  2. Wikipedia article for Project Runway if you're unfamiliar.   (back)