June 28th, 2017

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.

  • Perry Shaw

    From my own experience in faculty training I have concluded much as Maryellen suggests: the greatest barrier to quality teaching not skill but attitude. I have seen teachers with minimal natural ability who have made the effort to try new instructional approaches, and consequently experienced fundamentally improved levels of learning in students. Others who are clearly gifted rest on their natural charisma and/or communication skills, and rather than growing with ten years of experience demonstrate one year of experience ten times over.

  • Shelley Howell

    Wow, great thoughts. Dare I say: Is it possible that some faculty simply don’t care if their students learn? I haven’t found this to be true with most faculty I’ve worked with, but I suspect it might be true for some. And then there’s the issue of varying demands on our time…teaching, research, service. Administrative expectations seem higher than ever, and we seem busier than ever. It’s difficult to find the time to even consider new strategies, much less try them. We are exhausted! While we talk the talk about data and evidence, too many don’t walk the walk when it comes to teaching with evidence-based strategies. The question seems to be what can institutions provide to encourage and assist faculty with trying evidence-based teaching strategies?

    • John Faig

      Interesting observation that teachers might be too exhausted to embrace new research or data. This means that schools need to reduce the load so teachers have some spare capacity to evolve. It is possible that some teachers that don’t care about outcomes, but they very often want the personal satisfaction that they are making a difference.

  • Zack Barkley

    If we really want to be serious about teaching, and allow a fertile ground for everyone to achieve their potential, we need to uproot elitism from the system, incorporate the best systems (i.e. Finland), and also incorporate theoretical knowledge about learning we have acquired from neuroscience and artificial intelligence. A common thread through all of these is that slow and steady (not rapid) learners, actually find better solutions to problems. This is topsy turvy from where the American system works which punishes and marks kids with bad grades if they cannot learn a concept quickly. All our research suggest we may be selecting the worst, rather than the best. A sensible education system would allow for courses to be retaken and old grades rescinded if the student succeeds. It would emphasize slow and steady progress, not rushing to a competitive finish line. It would also allow those with knowledge and high levels of expertise into a system which is now dominated by subpar cronyist specializing in “education theory” but without any substance. My best teachers when I was in highschool were those who came in outside of the system (PhD’s etc), but this has been phased out in my understanding in current times.

  • William S. Barnes

    It will not be a popular thing to say, but – at least in Gen. Ed. courses – a concern for actual learning requires a faulty member to flout both student attitudes, and the attitudes of their peers. Students value entertaining classes which “go by quickly”. Peers value “popularity”, not efforts at critical thinking and learning. One need only point to the fact that student evaluations are not cast to reveal and reward either one. There is also the smugness of many who feel that the number of smiley faces they get on “Rate My Professor” is a vindication of their superior teaching skills.

    On the positive side, I do agree that innovative methods to increase learning in majors courses, are valued somewhat. But I think this is because the students in their majors are motivated, interested, connected to their teachers, and more appreciative. I doubt that faculty attitudes change, however.

  • P Perez

    The word is courage… Two years ago, after many failed half measures, I “flipped cold” a 400 student classroom. Crazy? Yes… Mistakes? Plenty… Did the evals suffer? Yes… But I have never had a half empty classroom again, or people just dropping quizzes or cases because, well, who cares? But, it takes courage, the willingness to fail, stand, dust off, and fail again in front of all those students… Maybe that is the biggest learning they get.
    For the record, my “ratemyprofessor” ratings are not good.

  • Samuel Yawila

    My observation is that many teachers get excited discussion different effective strategies in teaching and learning but are not willing to move the ideas to their practice. I am aware that various reasons necessitate that ‘unwillingness’. This is where Maryellen’s article above comes in. I think it is important to keep these sort of discussions alive in our institutions. Local seminars can be organised where faculty are encouraged (So they gain ‘courage’) to try out various other teaching and learning approaches, especially approaches that directly involve student participation. So, yes it is not about ‘data’ but ‘attitudes’ in the words of Perry Shaw and I think that those attitudes should be steadily built among faculty.

  • Rachel Niemer

    It’s really important to keep in mind that regardless of domain, behavior change is HARD. Environmental education experts, marketing experts, public health experts all have shown repeatedly that even when someone cares about an “issue” and knows that a different set of behaviors would help them achieve their goals, that new knowledge doesn’t equate to new behaviors. The note from Maryellen about the emotional component of pedagogical change is absolutely critical if we are going to help our colleagues be resilient in their efforts to change their teaching.

    There’s a very accessible book written by Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to change things when change is hard, which starts with a great analogy. Creating change is like moving an elephant, where the elephant rider is the cognitive element of change, the elephant is the emotional element of change and the environment is, well, the environmental component to change. Shaping all three elements is the best way to create lasting, successful change. Intrinsically motivated changes are more likely to stick (i.e. the elephant wants to go down that particular path). Some of the questions we need to ask ourselves are, “Do our colleagues feel like they are part of a community that is seeking to change?; Do our colleagues believe they can be successful in creating change?; Do they have choice in what and how they change their teaching?,” which are all rooted in Self-Determination Theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Each of those questions can be broken down into smaller questions, of course. With respect to our colleague’s sense of competence – does the classroom they are teaching in make it easier to implement active learning or does it make it harder?

    I keep coming back to the idea that I know I should go to the gym – if only knowing made it so.