August 17th, 2010

Thinking Constructively About Teaching Problems


“One telling measure of how differently teaching is regarded from traditional scholarship or research within the academy is what a difference it makes to have a ‘problem’ in one versus the other. In scholarship and research, having a ‘problem’ is at the heart of the investigative process; it is the compound of the generative questions around which all creative and productive activity revolves. But in one’s teaching, a ‘problem’ is something you don’t want to have, and if you have one, you probably want to fix it. Asking a colleague about a problem in his or her research is an invitation; asking about a problem in one’s teaching would probably seem like an accusation. Changing the status of the problem in teaching from terminal remediation to ongoing investigation is precisely what the movement for a scholarship of teaching is all about.”

I love how this quote challenges the way we tend to think about teaching problems. It was written by Randy Bass and appears in an article available online at Even though the article dates from 1998, most of us still haven’t changed the way we think about problems in teaching. First off, you aren’t the only teacher who has them; all teachers (if they are honest) have teaching problems. A lot of teaching problems result from the kind of students now attending college. That’s not to blame students or make them the problem, but simply to remind us that students have changed, and I think they’ve changed in ways that make them more challenging to teach.

Second, problems are there to be solved and most that teachers experience can be. But many of us struggle to find the objectivity necessary to reflect and analyze the problem without having some sort of mental meltdown. Yes, most teaching problems are frustrating, and they can make teachers feel like failures. But past those feelings is the need to seek out solutions—to work on the problem, to try various approaches and arrive at a solution that makes sense. Teaching problems are best solved intellectually, not emotionally.

And finally, chances are good you have colleagues working to solve the same problems. You can solve the problem on your own in the privacy of your classroom and be proud of the solution. But your colleague across the hall may have a better solution or may have figured out how that solution can be applied to other problems. Or, you and your colleague may be able to combine solutions and generate even more creative alternatives. Solving teaching problems, just like solving research questions, can be an intriguing and highly satisfying endeavor.