Lifelong Learning: Discovering and Developing Your Teaching Skills

“Self-knowledge is the beginning of all knowledge,” writes C. Roland Christensen, one of the true masters of discussion teaching. He is referring to his development as a teacher—how he arrived at the techniques that made him so effective. Most teacher accounts of growth are not as instructive and insightful as this one. Best of all, the approach he used to develop his discussion leadership skills is one that can be used to develop many teaching skills.

“Slowly, I learned to make my classroom observations more productive by focusing them. I started to try out tiny experiments. Instead of waiting for the class to assemble before making my appearance, for example, I tried arriving early to see what that might teach me about my students. The exercise proved valuable.” (p. 103) It helped Christensen get to know his students—who played sports, who had three tests that week, who had some experiences relevant to the day’s topic. That knowledge of individual students enabled him to stop calling on students alphabetically and start calling on those with relevant backgrounds and interests.

He notes that “much of what we teachers do in the classroom seems intuitive. My task was to examine this apparently automatic behavior, show its workings, and identify areas in which judgment might play a part.” (p. 103) He found it all but impossible to reflect on classroom discussions as they unfolded, saying that it was “like trying to meditate on a speeding fire engine.” (p. 103) Progress was also limited when he looked for general principles to guide his understanding. He discovered that he needed to be much more concrete and specific. “When I came to class with a simple, practical teaching experiment in mind—something like evaluating the effect of calling on students seated in different parts of the room—I got results. Sometimes I focused on the art of questioning. What happens when I ask the same question of two students in succession? … Sometimes I concentrated on phrasing. What is the difference between using a student’s name and simply gesturing?” (p. 104)

His approach makes sense, and, as he discovered, the classroom offers countless opportunities for this kind of experimentation and observation. “The classroom proved to be a perfect laboratory for my nuts-and-bolts experiments with the discussion process. As an observer, of myself and of other instructors in action, I truly began to learn.” (p. 104)

Most of us aspire to teach well. However, even though we want to continue to improve and grow throughout the years, most of us devote precious little time to our development. We look for new techniques and regularly try new strategies and approaches, but Christensen challenges us to start someplace else—to acquaint ourselves with ourselves as teachers.

Christensen believes in “the teachability of teaching. For the past two decades my pedagogical research, statements, and teaching objectives have centered on this fundamental conviction: good teachers are made, not born.” (p. 117) What he says next should be a source of inspiration for all of us: “My belief in the essential magnificence of teaching grows ever stronger. What I have learned about the abiding conundrums of discussion pedagogy makes me even more certain that teaching is a great learning experience. And for the study of teaching, what better laboratory than the classroom, where the teacher can experiment with the real ‘stuff’ and test, modify, and retest all the hypotheses?” (p. 110) He concludes with a telling question: “Is a lifetime in the classroom really long enough to figure out what effective teaching is all about?” (p. 111)

Reference: Christensen, C. R. (1991). “Every Student Teaches and Every Teacher Learns,” in Christensen, C. R., Garvin, D. A., and Sweet, A., eds., Educating for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Reprinted from “Discovering and Developing Teaching Skills,” The Teaching Professor, 23.10 (2009): 8.