Warm Demander Pedagogy
My voice quavered as I responded to Dr. Barr, my freshman class music theory professor. “Eh? You’d like me to sight-sing this line of notes in front of my classmates? As in Do-Re-Mi…?” I had never even heard of “solfege” before, at least nothing beyond “Doe, a deer…” popularized by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Dr. Barr, was not a warm and fuzzy fellow, quite the opposite of Maria, perhaps more like Captain Von Trapp. Clearly, running out of the classroom was not an option for me, nor was taking a pass, but somehow he earned my trust to lead me through that vulnerable moment without intimidation, and I grew to love his class.
“Why do you approach this research with such hesitancy? Such timidness?” Such were the words of my 400-level botany professor, Dr. Meese, spoken in a moment of frustration to the whole class in his thick German accent. The Reproductive Biology of Flowers was truly a fascinating course, and I gradually found myself following the lead of Dr. Meese, diving into close-up UV photography of irises scattered around the University of Washington campus, deeply intrigued that those fat furry bumblebees could visualize those attractive runways in ways that eluded my human sight.
These are among the professors I remember when asked to think of an educator who inspired a leap to a new level, someone who broadened my capacity for growth in an area I barely knew existed. Who are the educators who inspired you to new heights?
I think of Dr. Barr and Dr. Meese as “warm demanders” in a sense. Though not warm and fuzzy, they were not without compassion. Had I known what they were doing, I would have realized they were not trying to be rigid and inflexible. In their own way, they were showing compassion while at the same time providing an opportunity for me to engage in productive struggle, a necessary path toward moving from a dependent learner to an independent learner.
Leaning into productive struggle
Michelle Pacansky-Brock defines warm demander pedagogy as a culturally responsive teaching approach that creates opportunities for students to engage in productive struggle through engaging in challenging tasks, and this helps students develop from dependent into independent learners. She goes on to assert that all humans begin as dependent learners, and students who are poor and people of color are less likely to have had the privilege to be challenged in their educational experiences through productive struggle, which means they are more likely to be dependent learners.
It is precisely the productive struggle I experienced in the aforementioned classes that allowed me to engage and challenge myself, and struggle, but this is not the first step. Warm demander pedagogy and creating those opportunities for “productive struggle” is rooted in a strategy Pacansky-Brock refers to as “care and push.” The foundation for this is the building of trust in the instructor-student relationship. As Pacansky-Brock explains, “once a student knows you care about them and that you believe in them, they lean in. They challenge themselves. That’s when a student can flourish and reach their full intellectual potential.” I’m personally drawn to this image that a student will “lean in” and accept more challenge after gaining trust in the instructor.
Among the key characteristics of warm demander pedagogy is the need to express concern for students, not through passive sympathy, but by demanding a high quality of academic work. One of the main concerns we often have about showing compassion and some flexibility with our students in terms of deadlines, for example, is the fear that our expectations will diminish, that our courses will become less rigorous. Yet one of the pillars of the warm demander approach is that we challenge our students, all students, that we give them the opportunities for productive struggle essential in the path to become independent learners. Denying some students of this challenge denies them an opportunity for growth.
In discussing culturally relevant pedagogy, Gloria Ladson-Billings puts it this way…
“Culturally relevant teachers envision their students as being filled with possibilities. They imagine that somewhere in the classroom is the next Nobel laureate (a Toni Morrison), the next neurosurgeon (a Benjamin Carson), or the next pioneer for social justice (a Fannie Lou Hamer). The perspective moves the teachers from a position of sympathy (“you poor dear”) to one of informed empathy. This informed empathy requires the teacher to feel with the students rather than feel for them. Feeling with the students builds a sense of solidarity between the teacher and the students but does not excuse students from working hard in pursuit of excellence.” (White Teachers/Diverse Classrooms, p. 31)
The last phrase of that quote is the most revealing for us as educators. Indeed, the key principles of warm demander pedagogy used to develop intellectual abilities in dependent learners through cognitive struggle are perhaps best summarized by Pacansky-Brock in this intricate flow of “care and push.” A warm demander…
- Expresses personal warmth vs. impersonal professionalism
- Prioritizes building rapport and trust
- Clearly communicates high standards and scaffolds learning
- Shows personal regard for students
- Earns the right to demand engagement and effort
- Encourages and celebrates productive struggle
What about rigor?
What does this mean in terms of course rigor? Indeed, showing informed empathy, personal warmth, and compassion should not be equated with lowering our standards or less rigor. The warm demander approach starts with trust, proceeds with building the relationship, and at that point students will more readily engage with the challenge.
Thinking back to my own situation, what was it about the teaching of my professors, Dr. Barr and Dr. Meese that allowed me, actually inspired me to “lean in,” to accept the challenge, and to do so with passion, not only because a grade was at stake? What inspires you to “lean in?”
In my attempts to apply these strategies to my own teaching, I have not found the perfect balance of compassion, trust, relationship building and flexibility that always leads to student engagement. I think this pathway to engagement and the readiness to lean into productive struggle is highly individualized. A viable approach is to design what we think could be the most effective path toward this goal, but then be keenly aware of where our students are at, focus on trust, relationship building, and engagement, and then be prepared to to make small adjustments along the way.
Our students may not be ready to climb every mountain, but they will be leaning in more often to productive struggle along the path toward becoming independent learners. If there are warm demander strategies that have worked for you, please share!
Many of the ideas shared in this are based on the research of Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Faculty Mentor for the California Community Colleges CVC-OEI/@ONE. Michelle’s work focuses largely on humanized online instruction, and you’ll find a link to her full workshop presentation below. (If you can find the time, focus on the first 45 minutes.)
Resources for Further Exploration
- Being a Warm Demander: Challenging Students with Relationship-Rich Teaching and Wise Feedback, Michelle Pacansky-Brock, from the series “Fall Into Humanized Online Teaching: A Pathway to Equity, Fall 2021 (slides)
- Care and Push: Building Relationships with Students, Marcee Harris, The Chalk Blog, Mar 30, 2018.
- Student Centered Policies, Krysti Ryan, Kathryn Boucher, Christine Logel, & Mary Murphy, College Transition Collaborative, (See the final FAQ section Do student centered policies sacrifice rigor?)
- White Teachers/Diverse Classrooms, A Guide to Building Inclusive Schools, Promoting High Expectations, and Eliminating Racism, Chance Lewis and Julie Landsman, editors, 2006.