The classroom as a negotiation

Being a good teacher is no easy task, never easily reduced to a soundbite. And I’m far from the authority on pedagogy. Nevertheless, I think I’ve discovered a reasonably important practice that most decent teachers use at least implicitly: negotiating some aspects of a class and never negotiating others. So, in this post, let me try to make teaching slightly more negotiable by offering some observations on the aspects of a class that good teachers treat versus don’t treat as negotiations.

Good teachers, in my view, consider negotiating:

  1. Explanation of concepts: Excellent instructors know what they want to say and how they want to say it. But they’re also flexible on the means by which they convey their message if the students aren’t getting it. In other words, they show the willingness or even eagerness to explain themselves differently or at least repeatedly.
  2. Exploration of concepts: Sometimes, students wish to take a discussion in a totally different direction. And sometimes, that direction is counterproductive, so I don’t take the bait. But oftentimes, the direction they wish to go is constructive and interesting. Examples of potentially productive diversions might include: “How does principle A apply in other cultures?” “Does principle B still apply if C happens?” “I’ve experienced principle D in way E at work.” If the students want to stretch or test their understanding in a thoughtful and productive way, I’m usually more than happy to go there.
  3. Midcourse corrections: I’ve found that the best instructors not only ask the students halfway through a course how it’s going. They also actually act on whatever the students say. Indeed, it never fails to amaze me when the students say they’ve never seen an instructor make a midcourse correction. This resistance is somewhat understandable, as it’s not realistic or even productive to overhaul a whole course right in the middle. But I’ve found that students often have some very simple midcourse requests, which I can often satisfy rather easily. For example, they often ask for a little more information on X, and, lo and behold, I often have a little more information X handy. They really appreciate it.

But good teachers, in my view, don’t usually negotiate:

  1. Grades: I start my negotiation class by telling the students that nearly everything in life is negotiable except for their grades in this class. And I mean it, because one step down the path of negotiating grades with one student means an endless stream of students, all of whom want to apply their newfound negotiation skills in my office. It’s not sustainable nor equitable to the students who actually heeded my message.
  2. Core methodologies or course objectives: Instructors know best what they need to teach and how they need to teach it to ensure student learning. And it’s their job to teach it that way even if a few students gripe. Thus, while I always remain open to ways of refining the methodology or material, I never consider deviating from the core learning objectives or central methodology. If a student wishes to learn negotiation without actively negotiating on a weekly basis, for example, they won’t do well in my negotiation class.
  3. Experience versus evidence: Many of the evidence-based lessons taught in a negotiation class (and other classes) are counterintuitive. “What, it’s better to make the first offer?” And it’s good thing they’re counterintuitive, because what’s the point of the class otherwise? But some students just can’t stomach any evidence that doesn’t fit with their experiences. “But what about my random experience Y?” While it’s certainly true that every piece of evidence will not fit every experience that every individual has had—and more research to broaden the reach of the evidence is always welcome—I don’t let myself negotiate on the value of evidence versus random experiences. In other words, I don’t respond by saying “Well, maybe the evidence is wrong then.” Doing so, in my view, undermines my purpose as a conveyor of science. And I’ve discovered that the other students—everyone except the person with the random experience—don’t much like it either. “Who cares about that guy’s experience? I’m here to learn something new!”

In sum, good instruction is a complex and multifaceted matter. But thinking critically about which aspects of the classroom to treat as a negotiation and which to never negotiate can make teaching significantly more negotiable. A gold star to any of my students who read this and either validate my points or put me to the test!



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