July 16th, 2008

Disciplinary Perspectives on Teaching and Learning


A recent meeting on facilitating change in the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines reminded me just how much our disciplinary homes frame our views of the pedagogical world. About 45 faculty, some educational researchers and a few administrators were convened to consider instructional change, why so little of has occurred in these disciplines
(in all disciplines, as far as I’m concerned), and whether there might be better change models.

Those of us not in the sciences were few and far between. I can’t speak for others but most of the time I felt like a fish out of water. The conference organizers (with funding from the National Science Foundation) had prepared a 79-page paper devoted to categorizing the literature on promoting instructional change. It is an organizational masterpiece. But the way it carves up the literature doesn’t make sense to me. Big chunks of the landscape I’ve explored are left out—excluded by what seem to me like narrow definitions.

I wish I thought the aspects of teaching and learning were as neat, orderly, linear, and sequential as they appear to be to those in physics (for example). When I look at this intellectual landscape I see interdependent, overlapping, dynamic, and evolving relationships. I love the chaos, finding it endlessly fascinating. But I can see how that disorder drives others crazy. They want to get a handle on things—“to put a stick in the sand and start lining up things around it,” as one of the paper’s authors observed.

I left the meeting with two important take-aways. First, we have much, much to learn about collaboration. Rather than expending effort to advance our perspective, we need to devote energy to understanding and respecting different perspectives. It’s so easy to get caught up arguing for the way the world looks to us despite the fact that that kind of advocacy only makes it more difficult to see how the world looks to others.

I feel more tentative about the second take-away, but I wonder if we shouldn’t stop imposing our disciplinary perspectives on teaching and learning. Wouldn’t it be smarter to see teaching and learning as discrete entities—ones that operate differently than the phenomena in our disciplines? Could we look at them without our disciplinary glasses? The worry, of course, is that we won’t be able to see without our glasses. Things will look fuzzy and out of focus. But maybe our eyes will adjust and when they do, we just might see teaching and learning in some very different ways.

—Maryellen Weimer

  • Maria H. Andersen

    I have learned so much about teaching in my own field (mathematics) by taking courses from good instructors in other disciplines. Each time I take an outside course, I pick up techniques from their discipline that I can tweak to apply in my own discipline.

    I do think that some techniques lend themselves better to one discipline than another – and certainly, the success of a technique always varies based on the personality of the instructor.

    I was at the conference too! We met for a few minutes one day.