Student Partnerships

I have written here before on the ‘set up’ of a PBL classroom. However, I want to go some way towards explaining the process of negotiation and explicitness required in order to successfully set learners up, the classroom, and the context by way of a philosophical elaboration.

First, let me describe, or perhaps re-describe, the teacher in the context of ‘my’ PBL classroom. You will get the impression, if you engage with me in conversation or read a significant portion of my writing, that on teaching philosophy I view teachers as negotiators, coaches and facilitators of learning. These teachers are as capable of establishing a learning culture, in development of expectations, partnerships, etc., as they are about understanding and being critical of the context and constraints in which they work. 

Lately, I have taken to adopting Garth Boomer’s view that the teacher must be a ‘pragmatic radical’: an expert navigator of systems and structures, capable of self-regulation and reflection and the support of their colleagues. Without digressing, I think this quote captures well some of the key features of the ‘committed pragmatic radical’ teacher:

a new kind of toughened fighter for a better deal for the disadvantaged, who has dispelled the worst effects of soft edged romanticism while keeping alive sharp visions of a better society based on hard-won principle: “The radical teacher must be a hard-nosed pragmatist keeping alive principles and long-term goals; but having a canny sense of what is achievable, what is not worth the energy and what, however slight, might constitute strategic gain. The radical teacher must also seek out networks of support. Alone, even the pragmatic radical is at risk. … Pragmatism is not synonymous with capitulation or weakness. It is about knowing when to act and when not to act: knowing what is possible and what is doomed; weighing consequences and benefits; deciding what to say and what not to say; taking out insurance; having safety nets; not driving oneself insane with mocking images of unreachable utopias. To be pragmatic is to place the emphasis on effective action without denying the power of imagination and dreaming of better worlds: on the achieved and achievable rather than on the chronicles of failure. The quest for pragmatism is a kind of warfare on illusion. … To know 'what is going on', or even to wonder what might be going on, means having an all-encompassing fish-eye-lens taking in the backgrounds, capabilities and aspirations of the learners and their parents, knowing the structures, habits and values of the school, reading the wider politics of the system and society (particularly its economics), and understanding the ebb and flow of interactions and struggles in the arenas of gender, race, ethnicity and class. It also means having a good sense of history, and an understanding of the antecedents of the status quo.

Adopting this background, without having written further on it first hand in this space, I set the expectation of teacher-student partnerships in the classroom.

There is something even more practical to be taken away here. The process, perhaps a metaphorical step one, in a negotiation journey with our learners. The establishment of a ‘new regime’, but a pragmatic radical regime, where teacher re-theorises and contextualises for their context. Be that on arrival of a new class at the beginning of the academic year, or the re-negotiation of expectations with your current class. Returning back to the PBL classroom setup, it is absolutely critical, in my view, to make explicit the goals and aims of the classroom that learners are to be faced with. This process involves, in no small way, bringing the learners on the journey toward the relatively new structures, expectations, and even the physical layout of the classroom. 

If expectations are not made clear, if the frames of teaching and learning, for the learner, remain unchanged, there will often be some resistance. By taking small steps towards crafting a teacher-student partnership - indeed a learner-learner partnership, where teacher and student play both roles of learner and teacher - many potential pitfalls may be overcome. Without such a partnership young people may, drawing from their experience of learning ‘so far’, use their best powers of resistance - often through parents - to retain what they know of learning and the comfort they have from building a picture of the 'rules' - in light of the experiences they have had in the classroom already.

It is my goal to impress the importance of dually working as negotiator (in partnership with the students) for the design of the classroom, curriculum, and learning within the school context, and with those parties that may resist, and in equal part on negotiating with students on the expectations and requirements for learning. After all, even seemingly compliant docile students will have, perhaps after some encouragement, voices to share. Beginning the conversation is a way to engage all learners - negating the risk of “strike action” in our classrooms. 

Then for the teacher, as pragmatic radical who is, or is becoming, an expert negotiator of classroom, curriculum, culture, and society (within its bounds) – and indeed negotiator of expectations within each of these circumstances – may be able to, in some way, avoid becoming a victim of circumstance, or a docile bystander and acceptor unproblematically of new decontextualised regimes. In this way, perhaps it will be possible to harness the contradictions of  policies and testing, the constraints, and to employ our agency to make a real difference for our young people.

The point? We mustn’t watch as possibilities to learn, facilitate, coach and engage, indeed improve our learning and teaching theories, pass us by. We must seize every opportunity to use the contradictions and frames that are set up before us, traps to the uninitiated, as a vehicle for good teaching and learning in our systems. 


Boomer, R. G. (1991). Pragmatic-Radical Teaching and the Disadvantaged Schools Program. In B. Green (Ed.), Designs on Learning: Essays on Curriculum and Teaching by Garth Boomer (1999). Deakin West, ACT: Australian Curriculum Studies Association Inc.