Tuesday Teaching Topic: The Affect of Age Diversity in the Classroom

Today’s teaching topic discusses a topic that is perhaps easy to forget, but always has an affect. Some of our classes are occupied almost solely by 18-20 year olds. Some of our classes tend to have students aged 21 to 28 or so. Some of our classes have students who are older, more experienced, and wiser than we are ourselves.

In your experience, what affect does age have on your classroom? On your teaching style? Are there advantages to having age diversity, or older students, or only younger students? Do these situations provide any special obstacles to you teaching style?

In the set of classes I teach, I have one, Philosophy 107: Ethics, that routinely has a wide range of ages. The bulk seem to be students in their mid-twenties. They have worked a few different jobs, some military veterans, some returning to school, some parents, some travelers. The rest of the class generally consists of a few in their late teens, a few in their thirties, and a couple past forty. Almost always, I have one student who is much more advanced in age, and clearly recall a few quite interesting seniors attending the class who had lived full lives, some retirees with advanced degrees, who are just interested in reading some Plato in a formal setting and hearing what younger people have to think. Having older students in my ethics class is particularly interesting, because one of the class’s central questions is, “how should one live a moral, happy, and worthwhile life?”

In another class, a special section of Phil 106: Introduction to Philosophy, my students are almost exclusively 18 or 19, with a few in their early twenties. Rarely, I will get a student who is over thirty.

Discussion in that first section is much easier to stimulate than in the latter. The atmosphere is generally one of hard work and interesting discussion. The accepted norm in that class is either engaged discussion when students did their homework, or at worst, a sense of embarrassment because overwhelmingly students did not do their work. In short, the atmosphere indicates that they know what this class is about: they either did the work and are eager to discuss it, or they did not, and they know they fell short of expectations. The acceptable mode, or “social norm” of the class, is to take the class seriously and engage with the text and discussion topics.

In my other, younger class, things are quite different. The class is much more difficult to manage. The talkers are generally ones who did not do the work, and the atmosphere all too often feels as though few people care what we are reading and discussing in the class. The philosophical questions are routinely mocked. A few students are taking the class seriously, but they remain quiet. They only reveal their interest in our one-to-one conversation or writing assignments. The acceptable mode, or “social norm” of the class, is to avoid taking the class seriously, to casually disrupt the class, and to be slow to take the text seriously.

So, like most teachers would do, I asked myself the question: why is it routinely so much easier to induce good conversation and a culture of scholarship in one class, and so difficult in the other? Are the students in the first class better? Are the texts better? Am I more comfortable with the discussions in the ethics class than the intro class?

Or is it the average age?

My current hypothesis–and I would love your opinions on this–is that at HWC and other community colleges with similar demographics, we may want to actively encourage age diversity in our classrooms, and especially among our developmental ed classes. 

I believe that in my ethics classes with more age diversity, the older students tend to take the class more seriously to begin with. The younger students tend to observe the older students, and as the older students cultivate the more serious tone of the classroom, the younger students follow suite. They are learning a lesson that perhaps they have yet to fully acquire: what it means to be an adult in a classroom, what it means to live in a scholarly atmosphere.

If a class consists of very young students who are overwhelmingly coming straight from high school, and who are accustomed to the attitudes and modes of being a student familiar to them in high school, then the college classroom is just where those attitudes and modes find a new home. When it is one teacher among thirty students, the effort of the teacher is disproportionately spent on cultivating the proper environment rather than getting to the work of disciplinary knowledge itself.

Anyway, these are my experiences and thoughts. What have you experienced? What do you believe? Do you have any suggestions about dealing with age diversity or a lack thereof?

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