Dr. Alison Cook-Sather, PhD
Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Education
Director, Peace, Conflict and Social Justice concentration
Director, Teaching and Learning Institute, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges
Can you talk about your background and how you got started with your work regarding students as partners?
What I should say, before we begin digging into that background, is that “students as partners” as a phrase is not actually one that I use in a standalone way, if I can help it. I have this uneasy relationship with the term because it presupposes who is naming the practice, right? If you say “students as partners,” you are probably faculty or staff. There’s a way in which, even though it’s gained huge currency out in the world right now, I’ve really resisted it because, to my mind, it works against the ethos, against the real commitment of the work, which is to be more inclusive and equitable, and really signify that everybody who’s participating in the collaboration carries an equal contribution. And so I struggle with it.
I typically use pedagogical partnership or co-creation, student/faculty partnership, or student/staff partnership, so everyone —or no one—is named and no one is presumed the namer. When we used the phrase in my last book, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty, it’s addressing faculty, which is different. What’s happened is that people have listed that phrase, students as partners, out of longer contextual statements and used it as a standalone. Colleagues and I address this in a recent editorial.
We need to be really conscious of the language we use around this work so that we’re not privileging anybody, and so we don’t just reinforce the exact hierarchy that we’re trying to complicate.
I was first hired at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges in 1994 to run our Education Program, which is a secondary teacher certification program. I was struck by the fact that teacher preparation takes place largely without dialogue between prospective teachers and the students they are preparing to teach. A high school teacher friend and I created a program between secondary students and prospective teachers who were enrolled in our Education Program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford. It included a weekly exchange of letters and weekly meetings for the secondary students to share their perspectives, among other components.
I created that project after my first year, in 1995, and it has continued to be part of our secondary methods course ever since. In 2006 at Bryn Mawr, the administration asked me, “Could you help us develop an approach to supporting faculty reflecting on their teaching?” And I said, “Sure, as long as it can be this partnership model, with students and faculty in dialogue with one another about teaching.”
That’s when I created the program that we have now, at Bryn Mawr and Haverford, Students as Learners and Teachers, that pairs undergraduate students with current practicing faculty. These pairs engage in semester-long dialogues about what makes for a productively challenging and inclusive classroom, what practices faculty are already using that are inclusive, and what else they could imagine.
So it’s long been a commitment of mine to create support structures for dialogue between teachers and students such that they can bring their respective insights and experiences to inform teaching and learning.
Is that how you would define a pedagogical partnership?
In our book, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching, my colleagues, Cathy Bovill and Peter Felten, and I define pedagogical partnership as a collaborative, reciprocal process in which participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular and pedagogical conceptualization, decision-making, implementation, investigation, or analysis.
People often get stuck on this idea of contributing equally, because they assume that equal means the same. But the point is that faculty nad students don’t have the same knowledge and skills. That’s the idea: that everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner, just as you have at Northeastern.
Have you seen interesting outcomes through your work?
There are so many! The transformations are incredible. This work requires negotiating power in a whole new way. It requires trust and confidence in yourself and in the person you’re partnered with. Faculty can develop a deep respect for students and their understanding of how learning works, and their capacity to analyze and contribute to understandings of learning in a particular context or classroom. Students develop a much deeper understanding and respect for faculty. Through that deeper understanding, there’s greater respect and there’s greater empathy.
What comes of that dynamic for students is a renewed commitment to engage more deeply in learning, and to support not only each other, but also the whole learning endeavor as a collaborative project. Students understand their own role in a different way: that it matters what they say and how they say it in classrooms. Self-awareness is difficult to generate when so much in education is this sort of consumer mentality, and partnership really works against that.
Do you have any advice for those looking to start pedagogical partnerships?
Yes. Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty discusses bigger questions like, what is partnership? What are some consistent questions that people ask about partnership? What is the range of examples of partnership? I also am just finishing up a book right now with two former student partners that’s much more nitty gritty, step by step, this is how you do it. It’s very, very specific. It addresses questions such as: Wow do you conceptualize partnership? What are some of the thresholds, the barriers to partnership? What are some of the assumptions that people make? What kind of language do you want to use about partnership? How do you manage the emotional labor of partnership? It moves through consideration of all those kinds of questions. The working title of the book is Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnerships in the Classroom and Curriculum: A How-To Guide for Faculty, Students, and Academic Developers in Higher Education. It will be published through Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning Open-Access Book Series.
The basic advice is, take your time and identify your assumptions. Identify your goals. Develop structures to support reflection about goals, commitments, barriers, possibilities, roles, and responsibilities. Use the resources that are out there. I’ve written a lot about this, and other people have written about it, too. There’s a fair amount of guidance out there now for how to think about partnership in a way that is affirming and empowering for everybody, and that doesn’t reproduce some of the exact inequities and problems that the whole concept and practice are trying to address.
You really have to be committed to co-creation and dialogue and exchange and revision. A lot of people find those destabilizing and messy. And they are, there’s no question about it. But the results, if you really wrestle with the challenges, are transformative.
This work is especially important for underrepresented and underserved students at our institutions, which is where my research has focused recently. Partnership can create spaces within which students matter. Their perspectives matter. Their insights matter. Their experiences matter. And they have a voice in talking with faculty about what their experiences are and how classrooms can evolve to be more welcoming and valuing of what a diversity of students bring.
How would you connect pedagogical partnerships and experiential learning?
There are a lot of similarities but there are also some potentially significant differences. Both are absolutely about learning by doing. Both involve deep reflection as part of the learning process. Both are about meaningful engagement. Working with as opposed to on, you know, I think that’s a really important part of experiential learning. Both link the academic and the “real world” by focusing on the intersection of the theoretical and the practical.
Both reposition students as actors in their own education, not passive recipients of information. There is reciprocity in teaching and learning and partnership, where there may or may not be in experiential learning. I think sometimes there is, but not always. I would say that there’s particular potential in partnership to prompt new understandings because of the dialogue and exchange across differences of position and perspective that are structured into partnership. I think those can happen in experiential learning, but I’m not sure they’re always structured in.
There is shared responsibility for teaching and learning in partnership, whereas I think experiential learning can still sometimes primarily be an individual experience. With partnership, it really has to be both the student and the faculty responsible.
What does it mean to you to be both an educator and a learner?
For me, it means that I’m always in dialogue. I don’t ever have the only answer, and I’m always offering my perspective and expertise, but also, I am always seeking others’ perspectives and expertise. I see everything as co-created, as both a process and a product that’s only possible through collaborative engagement of those who are present.
Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Cook-Sather, A., Matthews, K. E., Ntem, A., & Leathwick, S. (2018). What we talk about when we talk about Students as Partners. International Journal for Students As Partners, 2(2), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v2i2.3790