Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Theme Contents
Innovative Teaching Showcase: Theme - Empowering Peer Learning


Correspondence, Networks, and Relationships in the Classroom

By Joseph E. Trimble
Distinguished University Professor
Department of Psychology and the Woodring College of Education

It is my distinct pleasure and honor to introduce this year's Innovative Teaching Showcase presenters: Garth Amundson, Professor in the Department of Art, Joseph E. Garcia, Bowman Distinguished Professor of Leadership Studies & Director of the Karen W. Morse Institute for Leadership, and Ann Stone, Lecturer in the Department of Finance and Marketing. You will learn that they firmly believe that they are truly connected to their academic interests and their students in their courses. According to the theory of social networks, behaviors of individuals are best understood in social contexts and relationships; that is, according to the prominent physicist- mathematician Albert-Laszlo Barabasi of Northeastern University, Z"Networks are present everywhere, because everything is connected to everything else." Social network researchers maintain that we should:

  1. focus on relationships between actors;
  2. understand mutual dependence by emphasizing individual responses or structures; and,
  3. understand how the structure of relationships influences outcomes.

Network analysts study relationships in contexts and how the patterns of interactions influence behavior and social change. Educators such as Garth, Joe, and Ann understand these network principles and effectively apply them in their teaching and relationships with students and colleagues.

Along with countless other faculty here at Western, indeed Garth, Joe, and Ann approach teaching as an educational partnership, with students as partners in the exploration and study of the topic. In the classroom they encourage and nurture the partnership, rather than promoting an educational setting where knowledge, defined as the accumulation of facts, figures, and discrete skills, is objectified and externalized. An educational partnership for them means that the partners are connected to the topic of inquiry and to each other as they experience the exploration of information. They view the partnership as a collaborative relationship set in an experiential atmosphere of openness where attention to the experience and sensitivity of others is emphasized. Thoughts and feelings are treated with mutual respect as partners explore knowledge and values. By encouraging independence while providing suitable structure, they expect and encourage students to participate in their holistic educational growth and development.

As a psychologist, I am keenly aware of the fact that everyone is hardwired to connect with others. Allan Shore of the UCLA School of Medicine once stated: "The idea is that we are born to form attachments, that our brains are physically wired to develop in tandem with another's through emotional communication, beginning before words are spoken." With this overarching principle in mind, you will learn that Garth, Joe, and Ann organize their seminars and classes to build on our fundamental need to connect with others. To accomplish a "connection" teaching objective, student experiences can be organized for them to participate in a series of activities and projects that emphasize their strengths as well as the importance of working with others in small group settings.

At one time or another all of us have had students who sat alone in the corner of the room, spoke only when queried and often hesitantly, were the first to leave the room when class ended, and preferred being alone seemingly excluding classmates from their inner circles. A few are problematic and troublesome but most of the "loners" pose few problems or challenges.

Creating a relational and correspondent learning atmosphere in the classroom can promote student engagement. In my numerous years of teaching and educational experiences I have come to realize that the "loner" wants to engage with the instructor, connect with some classmates, and, most important, connect and resonate with the course theme and emphasis. Typically, most "loners" don't know how to connect and sustain interpersonal relationships; however, we can create engaging classroom experiences by designing and promoting learning activities that foster a creative, supportive environment complete with positive proactive outcomes. Assigning students to the activities and experiences begins by recognizing and acknowledging their strengths. When placed in small group activities, for example, student strengths should complement one another to the extent that group outcomes depend on mutual collaboration. It has been my experience that "loners" will eventually realize they can connect in a positive supportive environment with encouragement and support from the instructor.

The three professors featured in this year's Innovative Teaching Showcase exemplify what it means to frame their courses to maintain and sustain the connectedness of their students. They are leading the way to show us how to build an educational system that will create the deep understanding and critical thinking required for understanding and valuing our connectedness and relationship to all that matters.

Professor Garth Amundson embraces peer learning as an essential ingredient in a collaborative multi-disciplinary classroom experience. Having a strong connection to his profession is one of the most valuable attributes he can provide his students. Using his experience as a backdrop, he strives to encourage students in all aspects of their academic and professional development. He encourages them to submit their work to competitions and have their work considered by other professionals.

As evident in his course syllabi and materials, Garth Amundson strongly believes that there is a contractual agreement between professor and student. He points out a successful syllabus needs to have a well-stated sense of purpose, a defined sense of direction and clear expectations. It needs to include more than a calendar and reading list; it must act as a schedule and support the goals of the course. Professor Amundson insists that, "While the syllabus is a crucial tool, it must remain flexible so that it can adapt to the organic nature of the classroom, as indicated in all my course syllabi. The syllabus should not be the enemy of the course--being bound to the minutia of the syllabus can be detrimental to the fluidity of the classroom."

Joseph Garcia offers two courses in leadership studies; LDST 101 and 450 are both offered through the Karen W. Morse Institute for Leadership here at Western Washington University. The connectedness of his students and faculty in the courses comes through in his belief that each party in the classroom should be treated with respect for subject matter expertise and experiences. Continuing, he maintains that, the topic of leadership is not about a position, or a formal title. It is about the connections between people, individuals who may be called leaders and followers. Through these connections, individuals, groups, organizations and societies are able find their way towards achieving their dreams. In my view, this orientation towards leadership is captured by the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu some 2500 years ago when he said, go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. The best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will say we have done it ourselves.

The overall design of the leadership curriculum is based on the principle that there is an accumulated body of knowledge about leadership and leadership inquiry that should be the core learning material for the courses. Surrounding this core are the professor, the students, and the professionals who engage with each other and the material from their different perspectives. The professor is a subject matter expert, the students are novice learners at different levels, and the professionals have practical experience that in their respective roles facilitate learning about leadership theory and practice. In his efforts to connect and engage young students, Professor Garcia reminds us some lack of student engagement is not an uncommon occurrence in first year courses as some are still finding their way as first year students. In summary, Professor Garcia points out that his leadership courses have generated positive results beyond the immediate course outcomes. The centerpiece for the course is his learning model that is helpful in guiding decisions about curriculum development and delivery. As organized, it keeps knowledge, in the broadest sense, at the core of the process and the people, professor, students and professionals as members of a learning community who engage in dialog about the course content.

The course for which Ann Stone had the most opportunity for crafting is Marketing: Branding. This course works within her own personal strength of practical experience in the branding field, giving her confidence about the topic as well as strong perspectives about how branding skills are utilized in work environments.

In keeping with the "connectedness" theme of this year's Showcase, Ann maintains that courses should be framed following specific learning experiences to include:

  1. Development of team-based exercises often made up of randomly assigned teammates. You don't pick your teammates at work; you often don't in her classes; and
  2. Emphasis of respectful teamwork and term-ending queries of team performance by individuals.

In those settings she looks for the "creatives" because she realizes that there is much for students to learn in the role of creative as they work in small group settings. Ann points out that, A world in which the "salons" of old are recreated as learning experiences seems a realistic goal for class time of the future. Whether led by students or facilitated by me, class conversations challenging ideas and pulling them together is the very best use of physical presence class time. The trick is to have enough students who have done the work ahead of time to insure adequate knowledge to have meaningful conversations; hence, my passion for learning more ways to make that happen.