September 13th, 2017

How to Make our Conversations about Teaching More Productive

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Professors chatting in library.

Where do your new ideas about teaching and learning come from? Perhaps some come from Faculty Focus and this blog? We certainly hope so! But most college teachers don’t get instructional ideas from the literature. They get them from other teachers, usually in face-to-face or electronic exchanges. Interesting, isn’t it, how much pedagogical information is passed on and around in these very informal ways.

Teaching Professor Blog If we’re learning to teach and growing instructionally through conversations with each other, that makes it appropriate to ask: What are we learning from each other? Techniques? Good strategies? Solutions to problems? Shortcuts and quick fixes? Is that all we could be learning from these conversations? Asked a different way, what would make these conversations better? What could help them promote, motivate, and sustain our growth as teachers?

Over the years, I’ve tended to be pretty critical of how we talk about teaching. Here’s a quick rundown of what I think compromises the quality of those conversations:

  • They’re often too ad hoc. They occur without planning. Two faculty members meet at the departmental coffee pot and start talking about excused and unexcused absences. They haven’t prepared for the conversation. They share what they think and advocate for the way they handle the issue.
  • The talk focuses on anecdotes and experiences. Like students who come to class not having done the reading, conversations about teaching are about what’s going on in our individual teaching worlds: “Guess what happened in my classroom and here’s what I did about it.” Granted, there’s wisdom that derives from practice and others can learn from it, but that’s not an automatic outcome and it shouldn’t be what we usually talk about.
  • The quality of pedagogical opinions is uneven. All teachers have opinions and all opinions merit a respectful listen, but not all opinions are good, correct, appropriate, or universally applicable. Moreover, many pedagogical opinions are presented with more conviction than evidence.

Here are some changes that I believe would make our teaching conversations better and more productive:

  • Questions should play a central role in our conversations about teaching. We should bring more questions than answers to the conversations. They may be the questions we are asking ourselves, the ones we can’t answer, or the questions for which we’d love to have a collection of potential answers. Questions drive learning! They make us look at what we know and uncover what we don’t know. They cause us to seek out what others know and lead us to the next (and often) better questions. Our conversations would improve if we asked more and answered less.
  • Our conversations need to move beyond techniques. In the beginning, the what-to-do and how-to-do-it focus is essential, and teachers should always be on the lookout for good techniques. But by mid-career, it’s time to explore why—why are we using that policy, why does that activity work in some courses but not others, why won’t students accept the responsibility for learning, why doesn’t our feedback make the next paper better. Our conversations need substance—stuff we can think about, chew on, view from multiple perspectives, and then dig a bit deeper.
  • Good talk about teaching stretches out from experience to evidence. At this point, there’s not much new under the pedagogical sun. Somebody else has already thought about it and often been there gathering evidence. In the dynamic milieu of the classroom, few things are known definitively, but something is known about most things. There needs to be a commitment to find out and learn in conversations.
  • Arriving at a discussion prepared improves the quality of the exchange. Ideas need to have been thought about and questions framed. A good article, read beforehand, can give the discussion both structure and content. What makes a good article for discussion? It raises more questions than it answers. It presents a position that can be seen from different perspectives. It challenges conventional thinking. It doesn’t even need to be an article–a pithy quotation can take thinking to new and different places. This blog regularly highlights articles that have made me think. In Faculty Focus Premium, we are launching a new feature where we identify a good article for discussion and provide a set of questions readers can use to launch a productive exchange with colleagues or for personal reflections. Preview Reflections on Learning: Giving Students Assignments They Hate »
  • And the most fundamental tenet for good conversations about teaching: let the discourse be civil, agree to disagree, work to convince each other, debate, argue, but always grant others the freedom to decide for themselves.

  • RT

    One conversation that needs to happen is, “What is the purpose of education.” I asked this to some fellow educators and found a variety of opinions. These opinions ranged from, “To get students ready to be successful in our culture” to “It should give students a holistic overview of their place in world.” It can be hard to get on the same page when the overall goals of the education being provided are unclear.

    • goodsensecynic

      I am saddened by the impatience with ambiguity and the desire for clarity in the domain of education.

      Standard tropes about the purpose of education (are we sure there’s just one?) are necessarily vague to the point of meaninglessness … and I am glad of it. This is not only because every attempt to create a cookie-cutter recipe for academic cookies fails … and rightly so … but also because, in the process of failure, the art of the chef is neglected to the point where no one even remembers what the culinary arts were established to accomplish. Yet, with each passing year, the idiocies of what an old sociologist once called “quantophrenia” and “testomania” – the “fads and foibles” of third-rate thinking in a mass production line of increasingly digital diploma mills.

      I am now a couple of weeks into my 50th consecutive year as a post-secondary classroom teacher. I have witnessed wave after wave of “new big things.” I have seen innovations and initiatives come and go. I have now tired of murmuring “plus ca change …” and just avoid the dog-and-pony shows in which the fashionably new methods are “rolled out” … usually right out the door and down the steep path to oblivion.

      Why is this so? It is because education is not the kind of enterprise that can be successfully chopped up into “curriculum units,” measured by “learning outcomes” and placed within a template/rubric in which quantitative values are applied to everything from the posture and voice tone of the lecturers to the motivations and attitudes of the learners. “Training” is what we do to circus animals. That is shameful enough, but it is irredeemable that we do it to our students.

      Still, the careerists keep coming on. I am old enough to remember … no, not when Thomas Edison confidently predicted that radio would replace classroom instructors, but certainly when videotape manufacturers prattled on about student-centered education when otherwise competent young people would watch canned presentations at their own pace, and professors would just be there for advice … “guides on the side” … if required and, of course, to administer tests of “mastery” at strategic points in the process..

      Since then, we have been dragged through all manner of ruses about technologically enhanced education that is set in a pseudo-technological language that is never the same from year to year. Yet discernible improvement in student awareness and understanding seems not to occur (though the ability to read and write is declining as we enter the much anticipated age of “post-literacy”).

      Redemption?

      Oh, it’s available “on demand.” All it takes is for teachers to display respect for knowledge, interest, creativity, hard work, independent thinking and the substantive content of the curriculum – which is not a commodity to be “delivered” but is, in essence, the “soul” of the university. And, above all, there must be respect for the students – not as rodents to be subjected to the analytics of a Skinner Box, but as potentially autonomous and critical citizens.

      Today’s students are not noticeably less intelligent than we were (10, 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years ago). They have simply had their curiosity and sense of critical inquiry stifled by the corporatization of official learning, the commodification of curriculum, the commercialization of research, the restructuring of academic work (now that upwards of 80% of undergraduate teaching is done by precarious, overworked, underpaid and (sensibly) terrified contract faculty who are denied not only job security but the academic freedom that is necessary in any college worthy of the name.

      As long, however, as Associate Professors are transformed into the academic equivalent of Walmart Associates and students are treated like customers in a discount department store of superficial knowledge, all the tips and tricks of the collegiate carnival won’t help. What’s worse, students are quickly acquiring the cynicism that comes with scams, distractions and the unseemly emphasis on “fun” and the so-called “college experience,” which also brings along a degraded intellectual “experience” and a loss of respect – nay, reverence – for the genuine understanding and wisdom that seems increasingly to be not only out of reach, but out of sight, out of favor and therefore beyond interest.

      That’s not the students’ fault. It’s the ineluctable consequence an increasingly empty academic life inside Corporate U.

      • RT

        This is a great reply and you made several good points.
        As one of those as “Associate Professors”, I strive to not transform into the academic equivalent of a Walmart Associate.
        My hope is that I provide an opportunity for my students to gain a deeper understanding of the various topics we cover in class. However, it is far more important that they gain a better understanding of themselves by challenging their own thoughts and ideas. Maybe through this process a student or two will take a small step on the path to wisdom.

        • goodsensecynic

          This may sound a trifle pretentious (though certainly more ennobling for all concerned), but I think that “modelling” (ugly term) an open mind, an active interest, a personal commitment to a life dedicated to exploring and understanding any and all issues within any and all (in)formal academic disciplines beats the heck out of being a “curriculum delivery person,” “a trainer,” a “guide on the side,” a “facilitator” or other conveyor of pre-digested “content” and assessor of student “mastery” and fulfillment of cookie-cutter “learning outcomes.”

          If education is to be “student-centered,” then let it be a matter of actual “education” (i.e., bringing out) the potential that’s already there, rather than engaging in what I call “the pedagogy of the Rubik’s Cube” (i.e., finding the quickest way to the predetermined solution to a phony problem-solving exercise) all the while having the cheek and impertinence to call it “critical thinking” (when it isn’t remotely “critical”) and “thinking outside the box” (when the focus should be on what’s inside the box, what the box is made of, what the box is doing on the shelf and why we need the damned box in the first place … i.e., constructing genuine “critiques” and not just doing the job of a the Walmart “stockboy” responding to market demand by putting more popular “product” on the intellectual shelf.

          – sorry if I seem churlish, but I haven’t had my 4th cup of coffee yet and it’s almost 9 a.m.

  • arnette wright

    In your article, you state that “our [teaching] conversations need to move beyond techniques”? I agree. Opinions about teaching, i.e. strategies, problem solving, etc., while enlightening perhaps, does not advance greater learning either for the student, the teacher or coworkers.

    I am a mature life-long learner and cannot waste time on other’s opinion. I need and actively seek research findings to guide my discussion regarding teaching. As a graduate in a doctoral program, in our discussion forms, in response to questions posted by our instructors, it is expected that we seek supporting evidence in defense of our position on a specific topic. It is then, we can engage in meaningful discussion, supported by research findings and not merely our opinions.

    Your blog stirred me up and I began to look for research that addresses your observation regarding teaching conversation. I am looking for research that addresses questions such as: Why teaching discussions do not go beyond the conversation regarding teaching techniques? What are the factors that could possibly explain this observation? How do these teaching conversations affect the quality of teaching?

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