A Call for Engaged Teaching

As I left my desk to attend the faculty development workshop, I picked up four thank-you cards for the rotations program, a report to read, and a newsletter to edit. I’ve been to dozens of development seminars, and I’ve learned to be prepared with something else to do in case the presenter is mind-numbingly boring. The pleasant surprise of the morning was that the speaker engaged us in learning for more than three hours! How did he do that?

First off, he began with something quite unexpected. He listed all his educational failures. He noted his inability to pass tests for high school and college entrance, and his fortune in being told about a technical college where he obtained a degree, barely passing the degree exams. He eventually found a doctoral degree program that didn’t require testing. In addition, he described depression and admitted the need for medical assistance. Not too many speakers qualify themselves for a professional speaking gig by listing painful failures. Yet all of us were mesmerized. His failures led him to work with challenged learners.

From that opening he laid out the underlying assumptions of critical thinking and the need for teachers to be considered both credible and authentic by learners. He detailed techniques for modeling critical thinking in the classroom as well as for engaging students in silent reflection and group discussion. He used these same tools to engage us. He asked us to reflect on and discuss this question: “When critical thinking happens in the classroom, what does it look like, sound like, and feel like?” He modeled small-group discussion by getting us to talk with each other about how we model critical thinking for our students and about what sabotages attempts to develop critical thinking.

During this discussion, many of my colleagues commented that using engaged learning techniques in the classroom took too much time. They weren’t able to teach all the material and ended the term with way more content than they could possibly cover. I’ve sat in enough lecture halls to know that neither I, nor my fellow students, have necessarily learned all that professors attempt to “cover” in a course. Yes, the professors lectured. Yes, I took notes, read the textbooks, memorized the materials, and took the tests. But at the end of the term, at the end of my degree, and 10 to 20 years later, what courses and what materials do I remember?

The classes I remember most from my graduate program are classes that got me involved. I remember the day I taught the child development lesson to the class. I remember the nutrition class where we researched and debated controversial nutrition topics such as the pros and cons of food plans versus medication for kids with ADHD. I loved the postgraduate course where I got to use continuous quality improvement tools to evaluate work flow at an upholstery studio. Courses that I remember vividly have one common characteristic: they actively involved me in the process of learning. I wasn’t simply a vessel to be filled; I was doing the pouring.

In the first faculty development workshop of that recent term, I never did get to write those thank-you notes. Nor did I read the report or attempt to edit the newsletter. Not during the seminar anyway. I did them later in the week. No, at the faculty development seminar I was engaged with my colleagues and fellow professors. We were learning to bring critical-thinking tools into our classrooms; tools that will make learning more absorbing, more memorable, not just for the resistant learners in the room, but for everyone. After that workshop, I am more committed to an engaged style of practice. I’ve come to realize that just because I stand at the podium and deliver does not necessarily mean the students “get it.” If I see laptops flipped open, notes being passed, students chatting, and newspapers being read, I can be assured that my attempts to “cover the material” have nothing whatsoever to do with learning. So to those of us who value learning, and I believe that’s all of us, I say, “Let’s stay engaged! Let’s keep on learning new tools and techniques for becoming better instructors. And when a presenter at a faculty development seminar really uses an engaging presentation style, let’s remember to say, ‘Thank you!’”

Mary E. Berg is the coordinator of Clinical Experiential Education at Northwestern Health Sciences University.

Reprinted from “A Call for Engaged Teaching” The Teaching Professor, 25.8 (2011): 4.