Contradictions in How We Think about Teaching

Professor gesturing in lecture hall

I like how blogging lets us stir up ideas, watch them simmer, and taste the results.

I’ll start this mix of ideas with Amy Mulnix’s insight that teachers approach learning about teaching much like students approach learning course content. Examples: students think ability matters more than effort and teachers think teaching is a gift that is given more than a skill that can and should be developed; students want easy answers and teachers want techniques that work right the first time; and both share the fear of failure. Is this a comparison from which we might learn something?

Teaching Professor Blog Then there is Mike Prince’s observation during his recent Teaching Professor Conference keynote titled Active Learning for Busy Skeptics and True Believers: data doesn’t change what teachers do. As many have noted, we don’t need more studies that compare active learning with lecture. We know that when there’s less talking and more doing, learning increases. And if we are reasonable about that conclusion and not absolutist in ruling out either, most faculty will acknowledge that they should be talking less and have students doing more. But teacher talk prevails. Why?

Even more discouraging than our knowing what we should be doing and not doing it, is a study done in physics that asked faculty about their use of a collection of evidence-based strategies only to discover that a third of those who reported using the strategies indicated they’d actually stopped using them. Really?

We work in environments where the rational, the logical, and the empirical are valued, and that’s understandable given the immense responsibilities facing higher education today. But does that cause us to under estimate, maybe even ignore, other dimensions of teaching and learning?

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American botanist, writes in Braiding Sweetgrass that native conceptions of plants fuse art and beauty with science, and that “science [alone] as a way of knowing is too narrow for the task.” It rules out questions like those she brought to the study of botany. She writes poignantly of a conversation with her advisor who asked as she started college why she wanted to major in botany. “I told him I chose botany because I wanted to learn why asters [vibrantly purple] and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.” (p. 39) He replied that was not something of concern to botanists. If she wanted to study beauty she should go to art school. For Kimmerer, the asters and goldenrod were emblematic. “It was an architecture of relationships, of connections that I yearned to understand. I wanted to see the shimmering threads that hold it all together. . .why the most ordinary scrap of meadow can rock us back on our heels in awe.” (p. 46)

I wonder if the way we approach our ongoing learning about teaching doesn’t rule out some of the questions, issues, and concerns that require further exploration. It’s perplexing how we can be committed to data but unwilling or unable to act on it. How we can love learning, but when confronted with pedagogical knowledge, we step away.

It can’t be that we don’t respect the data, but somehow the science isn’t convincing enough to change what we do, or sustain efforts to continue doing what may be harder but is more essential to learning. What ties the threads of data to teacher action are emotional—those transitory bits of feeling, trepidations, really. “So, this strategy has a good track record, but will I be able to do it? Will it work my content? How will my students respond? And what will I do if it flops?” The energy we need to keep going, moving forward, and always improving, that doesn’t come from knowing a strategy is evidence-based. It comes when the light of learning shines through a student’s confusion, when that smile of understanding stretches from ear to ear, or when an unsolicited note pops up on the screen, “thanks for showing me the way.”

We know with certainty that student beliefs about learning can compromise their efforts. Is it unreasonable to conclude that how we think about teaching and learning, those beliefs we hold, advance or impede our growth as teachers? Should we aspire to thinking that is more complete, holistic, and fused, less data driven and more emotionally resonant?

References: Dancy, M., Henderson, C., and Turpen, C., (2016). How faculty learn about and implement research-based instructional strategies: The case of Peer Instruction. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12, 010110.

Kimmerer, R. W. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants. Minneapolis, Minn: Milkweed Editions, 2015.

Mulnix, A. B., (2016). STEM faculty as learners in pedagogical reform and the role of research articles as professional development opportunities. Cell Biology Education, 15 (Winter), 1-9.