What We Learn from Each Other

When teachers tell me about some new strategy or approach they’ve implemented, I usually ask how they found out about it and almost always get the same response: “Oh, a colleague told me about it.” I continue to be amazed by the amount of pedagogical knowledge that is shared verbally (and electronically) between colleagues.

And I’m equally impressed by the spirit of sharing. Even if it’s an idea I thought up myself, one I’ve spent time and energy developing that I could ostensibly copyright or patent, if you want to use it—go right ahead. It’s yours. There are no intellectual property rights on good teaching ideas, and that’s a beautiful part of our culture.Teaching Professor Blog

Some new and impressive research verifies the strong role social interaction plays in our exchange of pedagogical knowledge. The study has a very specific context involving an elaborate interview design. The researchers collected data from 35 physics faculty members at a range of institutions. They were asked about their understanding and use of Peer Instruction, capitalized because it refers not to generic student collaboration but rather to the protocol of individual answer, discussion, answer again, developed by Harvard physicist and educator Eric Mazur (and highlighted in a previous Teaching Professor blog post). Almost 60% of those interviewed said they had first heard about Peer Instruction via an informal discussion with a colleague. Only 8% said they had found out about it by reading, however many of those interviewed noted that they turn to written materials and presentations to deepen their understanding.

The researchers report that “Informal, social interactions among colleagues are a key mechanism of communication about reforms” (010110-14). But there are some downsides to learning about teaching through conversations with colleagues. The researchers identified nine features that characterize Mazur’s brand of Peer Instruction, and they queried faculty about each. They discovered that almost half of their cohort, who had been selected because they reported familiarity with Peer Instruction, “did not indicate awareness of any specific features of PI [Peer Instruction] beyond getting students to work together.” (101011-9)

When pedagogical innovations are passed from someone who got the idea from someone else, the fidelity of the information is bound to erode. The point isn’t that faculty must use an instructional approach exactly as it was originally prescribed. We teach different content and different types of students in unique instructional settings. But as these researchers point out, when an instructional intervention, such as Peer Instruction (or team-based learning, or cooperative learning, or lots of others), has been studied but some of its essential features are modified or removed, the results identified in the research may not occur. It’s now up to the teacher to ascertain whether the new form of the intervention is producing the desired effects.

Three final points: We can and do learn from each other, but when it comes to implementing something new, we should look beyond what we’ve heard about from others. Fortunately, there’s a treasure trove of information on almost every instructional intervention. It’s fine to go ahead and adapt these different approaches to teaching—to do what we think needs to be done to make the change work—but as the researchers discovered, the faculty in their cohort was making changes pretty much willy-nilly. True, there probably isn’t going to be a readily available study that explores the changes exactly as you’re proposing to make them, but there is likely more to be learned from others who implemented the innovation as well as from those who’ve studied it.

We often get after our students who try to participate in discussion without enough background knowledge, related experience, or having done the reading. The lack of preparation affects the quality of the discussion. The same critique could be leveled against us. If all our pedagogical exchanges happen on the fly as we pass each other in the hall or pause in the mailroom, we’re not having conversations that match the caliber of what we’re trying to accomplish in the classroom. We can and should be learning more from each other.

And finally, here’s a point I’ve made previously. We need to choose pedagogical colleagues carefully. We select our research partners by employing high standards, but pedagogical colleagues? Too often we exchange ideas with and obtain information from whomever happens to be nearby. But not all teachers have the same level of pedagogical wisdom. You will learn more from someone who knows more.

Reference: Dancy, M., Henderson, C., & 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.