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Case Studies - Changing The Instructor's Role

The Atlas complex amounts to a set of assumptions--which most of us developed through years of formal education-that a teacher should be the central figure in the classroom, assuming full responsibility for what goes on, while a student should be the receiving figure whose success is measured by meeting largely pre-specified expectations for demonstrating mastery of what the teacher provides. In Finkel and Monk's words1, teachers who participate in the Atlas complex "supply motivation, insight, clear explanations, even intellectual curiosity. In exchange, their students supply almost nothing but a faint imitation of the academic performance that they witness" (p. 85). Teachers "exercise their authority through control of the subject matter," but they "lack the power to make things happen for their students" (p. 85). The ideal relationship is understood to be that of the teacher (expert provider) and the student (novice receiver)--what Finkel and Monk call the "two-person model" (p. 85). Classes are a modification of this ideal wherein, due to economic factors, the teacher fulfils the expert provider role for many students and also adds the group leader role. The Atlas complex comes full circle with the belief, held by both student and teacher, that the students should rely on the expert leader for answers and not view themselves or other students as learning resources.

Finkel and Monk explain that most faculty, when they consider this "ideal" paradigm, are quick to realize that it assumes an approach to teaching that is at odds with their own experience of effective learning. They state,

    A teacher who takes responsibility for all that goes on in the class gives students no room to experiment with ideas, to deepen their understanding of concepts, or to integrate concepts into a coherent system. Most teachers agree that these processes, together with many others, are necessary if students are to understand a subject matter. Any teacher will say that the best way of learning a subject is to teach it--to try to explain it to others. Scientists agree that intellectual exchange, discourse, and debate are important elements in their own professional development. (p. 88)

    Almost anyone who has learned something well has experienced the particular potency that a collaborative group can have through its ability to promote and make manifest such intellectual processes as assimilating experience or data to conceptual frameworks, wrestling with inadequacies in current conceptions, drawing new distinctions, and integrating separate ideas. The evidence that collective work is a key ingredient to intellectual growth surrounds us. (p. 88)

Nonetheless, Finkel and Monk conclude that most faculty remain trapped in a kind of monolithic Atlas complex state of mind. Those who attempt to break out of it often find both themselves and their students resisting the change. It feels odd--and risky--to insist that students focus on projects and their interactions with each other, rather than on the teacher. They feel that standards of clarity and accuracy, to say nothing of intellectual rigor, will surely be lowered by trusting novices to figure things out.

Finkel and Monk observe that a successful way to release oneself from the Atlas complex and to cope with student resistance is to distinguish teaching and learning roles, from functions. Roles are interlocking sets of behavioral norms that apply to categories of persons within the context of a particular institution. The Atlas complex entails particular teacher and student roles. Functions, in contrast, are the particular duties or performances required of a person or thing in order to achieve a goal or complete an activity. Examples of teaching functions include having students examine particular phenomena from a new perspective, getting students to organize facts and events into a general scheme, or developing in students new skills. Each of these functions involves particular ways of operating in the classroom--and does not, ipso facto, need to be performed by the teacher. Separating roles from functions allows a teacher to decide what functions would be performed most effectively by whom--whether the teacher, lab assistants, undergraduate or graduate teaching assistants, an individual student, pairs or groups of students, or even electronic tutors. It also opens up options regarding the best settings for performing these functions.

The beautiful thing about making this role/function distinction, as Finkel and Monk present it, is that it releases both teachers and students from the dilemmas created by being locked into roles. They explain:

    Teachers ask, Is my role of teacher one of expert or helper? As if they must choose between these two roles. The conflict disappears if the teacher performs functions that require expertise at one time and place and functions that require helping at others. To say that students must be independent (bold, skeptical, imaginative) and dependent (relying on the accumulated knowledge of past generations) sounds like a contradiction because it is couched in the language of roles. The adjectives prescribe contradictory norms for a category of persons. But if we say instead that some of the activities in which a student must engage require independence and that others require dependence, then the contradiction disappears. (pp. 91-92)

Explaining the role/function distinction opens up options for distributing teaching functions across different individuals, options that are right on the mark for faculty whose teaching principle is "help students take more responsibility for their own learning."

1. Finkel, D. L., & G. S. Monk. (1983). "Teachers and learning groups: Dissolution of the Atlas Complex." In C. Bouton & R. Y. Garth (Eds.), Learning in groups. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 14, (83-97). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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