June 8th, 2016

Are We Too Preoccupied with Teaching Techniques?


prof in lecture hall

College teachers love techniques. If you’re invited to lead a teaching workshop, you can expect to be asked, “Will you share some good techniques?” Suggest them in the workshop and watch lots of smiling participants write them down with great enthusiasm. Why do we love teaching techniques so much? Because many of us come to teaching not having many? Because they work? Because they keep our teaching feeling fresh?

I have been fretting about this attraction to techniques for years now. They aren’t inherently bad or wrong, in fact they play a necessary and important role in effective instruction. It’s our thinking about them that seems off the mark. Let’s start with definitions. What is a teaching technique? A gimmick, a trick, a strategy? Something that keeps basically bored students engaged? A plan of action used to accomplish a particular goal? Are we right to assume that we’re all talking about the same thing?

Teaching Professor Blog A lot of us tend to think of teaching techniques as solutions to problems. “How can I get students coming to class with the homework problems done?” “What’s a good technique for getting students to realize how much they don’t know?” “My students are posting comments to the discussion board, but they’re not really having a discussion. Any advice?” “What can I do to get students to make use of my feedback?”

Are questions like these motivated by a belief that all we need to solve our teaching challenges are the right techniques? Something that can be plugged into a formula like we’re trying to solve a mathematical equation? Unfortunately, even a good technique doesn’t work well for all teachers all the time. There are no cure-all solutions that function effectively with all kinds of content and for all kinds of students. No technique is going to be implemented equally well by all teachers. Our thinking about what a technique can accomplish needs to be a bit less optimistic.

In most teaching situations, there are multiple techniques that can be used. Say you’re responding to a wrong or not very good student answer. You can fix the student’s answer. You can ask for other answers. You can try to get the class to correct the answer or make it better. You can say it’s wrong but laud the effort. You can inquire how the student arrived at the conclusion. You can say “no” and move on to someone else. You can respond to the one promising part of the answer, and build on that. This only starts the list of possibilities.

There’s a tendency to think that having more techniques is all that’s needed to become a better teacher. Collecting techniques is fine, but it’s the first and easiest part of a pretty complicated process. When there are multiple ways to respond to wrong answers, you’ve got to figure out which one to use. Having a large number of options is of little value unless you make a good choice about which technique is best, given the circumstances. And how we choose among techniques is not something considered or discussed all that often. What sort of guidelines or criteria are we using?

The use of certain techniques can be planned ahead, but others must be selected on the fly. A student has answered incorrectly and we must decide how to respond, but without time for thoughtful, scholarly consideration of the options. The online environment offers more time to reflect, but do we take advantage of it, or do we simply default to how we usually respond when an answer isn’t very good? Whatever choice we make, we must then live with the consequences of how we’ve responded. There’s no director yelling “cut” so we can regroup and try a different response. Of course, we can always try to make a bad situation better, but if we’ve chosen poorly there’s no way to erase what happened. So, a collection of techniques has got to be monitored and managed, and that requires a lot more sophisticated skills than those needed to acquire a collection.

And finally, there’s this. Teaching techniques are essential. If you don’t think so, try teaching without any. However, even though techniques make effective instruction more likely, they offer no guarantees. Good techniques are never enough, and too much focus on techniques sidetracks us from what really matters. Parker Palmer offers this reminder, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (p. 10)

We can love techniques, but let’s not love them for the wrong reasons.

Reference: Palmer, P. The Courage to Teach. 10th Anniversary Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

  • Steve Markoff

    Easy. Because the large percentage of teachers are guilty of the same thing that they fault in their students — that is, looking for the easy way out! The “technique” for the teaching is like the “memorizing” or “short cut” for students. The teacher feels that, if they have “the technique”, then they won’t have to look themselves in the mirror and invest the time, talent, energy, opportunity and money learning how to develop themselves into good leaders and developers of people. Focusing on techniques keeps them from seeing and addressing the deficiencies in themselves. It keeps them from having to acknowledge that their role is NOT so much the provider of information, but rather, that they must develop abilities as mentor, leader, salesperson and people developer. Doing that takes much self inspection and introspection, and a large investment of personal resources to achieve higher levels of competence in these areas. It’s effort and commitment that, unfortunately, the large percentage of teachers just don’t want to do – and, at the college level, it’s the easy way to go since little if any of their success depends on their teaching ability. Much easier to have a technique and then blame the students and the technique.

  • Judi Kusnick

    In our professional development program, we make the distinction between design principles and gadgets. Design principles determine the structure of the lesson, and are based on research on student learning. That is, design principles help you figure out what you should do to maximize learning. Design principles are things like: use the whole brain by varying the modes in which students engage the material (visually, aurally, orally, in text, in graphics, etc.), limit the time spent on passive listening to small chunks of time, provide opportunities for students to rehearse ideas at various levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, etc. Gadgets are the techniques you use to enact the design principles. Gadgets are useful and necessary, but they are gadgets. You cannot make a fabulous souffle without a whisk, but without a well-designed recipe for the souffle, the whisk is irrelevant. A good teacher needs to have gadgets like Think-Pair-Share (TPS), one minute papers, Muddiest Point, etc., in their back pocket to enact the well-designed lesson. But the gadgets alone do not make a good lesson. You can waste time having students doing TPS on a prompt that is inappropriate, at the wrong cognitive level, or just plain stupid. It’s the design principles that make for good teaching. The gadgets are just the hammers and saws that help you construct the well-designed learning experience.

  • Interesting question. I applaud faculty for taking time to learn new teaching strategies. I don’t think faculty are looking for strategies because they are lazy or not coming from a place of integrity when they teach. I think it shows a high level of awareness (both self awareness and an awareness of student learning) when faculty search for and experiment with new strategies so they can connect a teaching technique to a learning outcome and then integrate that technique into a lesson. I do agree with Judy’s comments about the importance of connecting course design principles to teaching strategies. Teaching strategies or techniques need to be grounded within a pedagogical or andragogical framework and built on solid course design.

    As I read this article, I thought about a study I led a few years ago using Fuller’s Stages of Concern as a framework for analyzing how teachers move through the journey from being focused on themselves in the classroom to focusing on students’ learning. Inexperienced instructors are often focused on themselves (What am I going to say in class? What questions should I ask? What if I don’t know the answer to a question?). It takes time for them to make the shift from this first stage to the final stage of recognizing how students learn and how to design a learning experience focused on what students need. When I see faculty wanting to learn more teaching strategies or techniques, it shows me they have moved beyond the first stage and are not thinking about themselves in the classroom. They’re focused on their students, and they are often seeking more concrete ways to improve the learning experience.

    When I work with new instructors, TAs, graduate students, and postdocs, I find that they value the concrete ideas provided by teaching strategies. These techniques can make the convoluted theoretical models of how people learn more concrete and specific so they can start their journey as a teacher using principles that have been successful for those who came before them. When I work with experienced faculty, I agree, new teaching strategies can be a great way to mix it up and “refresh” the classroom experience for both the students and the faculty member.

    I also think teaching strategies can be wonderful for starting interdisciplinary conversations and finding a common ground from which to launch into deeper analysis and discussion of how students learn and how we can create learning environments that are successful for students and faculty.

  • goodsensecynic

    “Teaching techniques” are nothing by “sales pitches.” They are intended to “motivate” and “engage” young people who are assumed to have no discernible interests and enthusiasms of their own – never mind the “skill sets” needed to negotiate academic life. Carefully crafted, orchestrated, choreographed and scripted to provide students with an “experience” on their “path to success,” they are not exercises in “critical thinking” (the pedagogy of the Rubik’s Cube), but merely well-plotted scripts in which young people are akin to laboratory rodents coerced into pressing the correct levers in order to get an intellectual food pellet (a grade).

    By the time a student gets to college or university, these bits of emotional bribery ought to have been long retired and students should be ready to forego the passive-aggressive stage of entitlement in order to start the process of becoming both an independent and an informed citizen-scholar. Anything less is pandering to corporate submissiveness.