March 14th, 2012

A Good Conversation about Teaching and Learning


Last week somebody asked about my goals for this blog. I gave a rather generic answer and realized I hadn’t thought about goals since we first started the blog.

When I write posts, I’m thinking about us having a good conversation about teaching and learning. And what characterizes good exchanges on instructional topics? They start off being on a topic of interest. I think the relevance of the topic needs to be established by the title and in the first couple of lines. Anybody writing about teaching and learning fights against the absence of norms expecting faculty to grow and develop professionally by reading. We all know that colleagues who don’t read experience few professional consequences. True, their students suffer, but they don’t, although perhaps their professional experiences are not as rich and satisfying.

So, goal number one: Discuss topics of interest and relevance to college teachers. Good conversations among educated folks are well informed. It’s not about sharing opinions with no evidence behind them, misinformation, myths or urban legends. And here, I aspire to set an example because I am regularly dismayed by the caliber of many of the conversations on teaching and learning that I hear. The knowledge base is too often exclusively experience-based. I know that much of what we have learned about teaching and learning derives from first-hand experience. I also know that experience has made us wise and not so wise to varying degrees. What folks take from experience is most often based on previous experience. So, if you start with a wrong conclusion, one not justified by the experience, subsequent experience most often further confirms what was incorrect in the beginning. This explains how some teachers end up with very wrong ideas about students, learning and teaching. What we believe we have learned from experience must be verified with an infusion of ideas and information from outside. I want this blog to showcase how much is known about teaching and learning, and how much we can learn from and with each other.

Goal number two: Share the rich experimental and experiential knowledge base on which good instructional practice should rest. I think good conversations about teaching and learning are provocative. They constructively raise hair on the back of necks. They make those in the conversation want to respond—to agree, disagree, point out what’s been missed, ask a follow-up question or in some other way state what they think and why. And provocative we should be about teaching and learning because so many of the assumptions behind what we do have not been examined. We haven’t thought about them deeply, critically, analytically—all those intellectual things academics do so well, but don’t often do when the topics and issues are instructional. Good conversations make us think. They follow us around, make us see what we’re doing from a different perspective and motivate us to talk about things with others.

Goal three: Provide provocative content that makes teachers think and talk more. Last and most important of all, good conversations about teaching cause us to act. We don’t just listen, we don’t just respond, we do. The beauty of teaching is that it happens every day or several times a week—whatever the interval—teaching happens regularly and that gives us an opportunity to use what we’ve learned. Good conversations are motivational. Maybe we can do something better, maybe the students would understand more if we changed, maybe doing something different is just what we need to keep us charged.

Goal four: Motivate teachers to act on what they are learning. Technology has changed how we converse, but I don’t think it has altered the characteristics of a good conversation. Blogs offer another and perhaps easier way for us to learn from and with each other. But there is learning potential whenever teachers exchange ideas and information about teaching and learning. Research continues to confirm that most of our instructional ideas and information come to us from colleagues, which is why we need to keep talking and keep working to make these good conversations.