Blog Post

Students Left To Their Own Devices . . . Again!

One point of "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," my peer-led, peer-taught, class is to give pairs of students, each week, the opportunity to think about the entire shape of our course and all the possibilities offered by our university and shape an intellectual experience--assignments, field trips, all that--that is challenging and inspiring.   Every week, I am blown away by what they come up with.   To reiterate, I have created a syllabus in the past.   For this class, that syllabus still exists.  There are some unchangeable events (three guest speakers, collaborative midterm exam, etc) but for every other unit, the two students in charge read what I have planned, and decide to go with that, to add something, or to change the topic.   So far, all the peer leaders have changed the topic . .. and the class is like nothing I have ever experienced.


To give a sense of the scope, I'm including emails below where two students (I have deleted their names for privacy purposes) have arranged with Professor Michael Platt, a neuroscientist at Duke, to visit our DiVE (Duke Immersive Virtual Environment) where we will walk through a visualization of the brain, including an experiment that simulates emotional experiences in the brain.    This is a follow-up to the visit by Professor Vittorio Gallese, one of the scientists at the famous Parma lab that identified mirror neurons.  


Check out all of the ways these students have taken charge here.   The exchange is in reverse chronological order.   Amazing. They have arranged to meet with Professor Platt to discuss their work and the availability of the DiVE.  They have written me after they have found out this is possible to propose times.  In between (not reproduced here) they check in with the TA about the timing.  And then they wrote back to me to see if their weekly assignment could be extended a week so it could include the DiVE as part of the assignment and as part of their "lesson plan."  

Okay, tell me again:   why is it that students get away with murder if you ask them to work collaboratively and to take the role of leaders, not passive participants?  I could not be prouder of these students, for their ingenuity, their creativity, their keen organizational skills, their collaborative abilities, and their self-pride in delivering the best educational experience they can to their peers when they are in charge.   When you see this small glimpse into the possibilities, it is hard, ever, to go back to conventional teaching.   At this stage in my career, nothing is easier than walking into a classroom and spouting a lot of things I know already by rote.   I admit, orchestrating peer-learning takes more time, more thought, more cold sweats in the middle of the night remembering this or that detail I forgot, all the things good teachers do all the time, where nothing is rote, everything is geared to the particular audience, the particular historical moment, the particular situation.   But seeing how excited my students are (even the attendance is way off scale and the participation beyond compare), I know this is the best way to be teaching, for me, now, and for them.   Not every class should be run like this----but at least one, during their college experience, should be.


I have the great good fortune--as do these students--to teach at a university rich with resources.   Yet the single most important resource is all the skill, intelligence, maturity, and sense of exploration the students themselves bring, individually and collectively, to their higher education.   In most classrooms, at the most elite university in the world, the intellectual experience delivered is poor compared to the one that the students themselves have the potential to offer---if only they are given the chance.


Here's this incredibly competent, polite, managerial exchange.   Who wouldn't want one of these two student leaders as a colleague when they graduate?

On Feb 10, 2011, at 8:09 PM,

Dear Professor Davidson,

We've been offered 12-1:30 on Monday the 21st for the DiVE, so I asked for that slot. Will let you know once we get confirmation. We will arrange the simulations so that the emotions one comes first (the one we will want students to reflect on), and the brain tour (less critical) will come second, in case students need to leave early.

XXX and I will discuss our lesson plan again and then let you know what we intend. Offhand, I think we may actually want our assignment to be due after the 21st, so students can incorporate the DiVE experience in their posts. Is that an option?



On Feb 9, 2011, at 6:07 PM, XXXX wrote:

Hi Professor Platt,

Thanks again for meeting with us.  We're really excited about visiting the DiVE.  The two dates that would work for us are Wednesday February 16th or Monday February 21st from 11:40-12:55, but like we mentioned earlier, we're flexible with exact times.  If you could get a quote for us, we will send that on to Prof. Davidson first to see what funding is available. 

All the best,


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