October 21st, 2015

Thinking about Teaching and Learning


Professor in classroom

Iheard someone say today that he’s been teaching for 50 years and never really thought about his teaching. “I just go in there and teach—I don’t think about it.” And here I am having spent something like 45 years thinking a lot about my own teaching and that of everyone else. From my perspective, it’s hard to imagine teaching without thinking about it.

I doubt that you’d be reading a blog like this one if you didn’t think about your teaching, but the comment did lead me in a potentially useful direction: What’s healthy thinking about teaching? If we do think about it, what are some constructive cornerstones within which our thinking can occur? Here’s a place to start.

Teaching Professor Blog Don’t think about teaching without thinking about learning – We were pretty much fixated on teaching during the 1980s and before. We assumed that learning was the inevitable, automatic outcome of good teaching—not an entirely bogus assumption. Research has identified certain ingredients and components of effective instruction that can be linked to learning outcomes. Then in the 1990s we “discovered” learning. Like the new world Columbus visited, learning had always been there but it wasn’t a place we had explored or conquered. The focus on learning has been productive, offering many new insights and understandings. But what’s healthiest it seems to me is thinking about both, together. I used to think of them as two sides of the same coin, but that still conveys a certain separateness when they need to be thought of as inseparable. Teaching that doesn’t promote learning has no reason for being.

One of the ongoing criticisms of learner-centered approaches is that students are being left to teach themselves. But that’s an incorrect conclusion. It’s learner-centered teaching—it’s those instructional strategies and approaches designed and used by teachers who want learners to be motivated, independent, and self-regulated.

Think about teaching with a more balanced perspective – Caring about teaching requires an emotional investment, but sometimes we are too heavily invested. How many of us quickly forget a whole handful of positive comments but hold onto that one remark in which a student posits that the teacher’s attitude was arrogant. We tend to react to negative feedback with nothing but raw emotion. Balanced thinking lets us experience the emotions but also finds a place where objectivity can be summoned and reflective analysis can begin.

We are also less balanced than we should be in our assessments. Our thinking about teaching is so quickly judgmental. “How did class go today?” “It was good!” From start to finish, on every topic, and for every student—and we readily offer that evaluation without seeking any real proof. Balanced thinking about how the day went, how a strategy worked, or if a concept was explained clearly is more tentative, less comprehensive, and more evidence-based than we often recognize.

Think about teaching deeply – We criticize students for their surface learning approaches and yet I see a lot of surface learning when it comes to teaching. Our infatuation with teaching techniques—the tips, tricks, and gimmicks that can make our teaching dance—yes, they’re important, but so are the assumptions and premises on which they rest. We quest for “right” answers to what we think are simple questions. “Should I call on students or let them volunteer?” The answer depends on a host of variables including; how you call on students, who you call on, when you call on them, and what’s the motivation behind calling on them. Thinking that good teaching results from having right answers trivializes the complexities that makes teaching endlessly fascinating.

Think about learning – In this case I’m not referring to student learning, but learning about teaching. I have talked with teachers who admit they don’t do any pedagogical reading and others who don’t do any professional development activities. How can you expect to stay instructionally alive and well when you’re not taking actions that promote health? It’s not about needing to improve; it’s about wanting to grow. It’s about taking our love of learning and tackling teaching as a subject to be mastered, a skill to be developed. Teaching is less a gift and more skillful knowledge that teachers have set about learning.

  • Howard A. Doughty

    First, it wasn't me. After all, I've only in my 49th year of teaching!

    On the other hand, I can understand the point.

    Most of what we call "thinking about teaching" or, to be a tad grandiose, "the scholarship of teaching and learning," boils down to a gussied up version of "employee training" at McDonalds with a thick and gooey veneer of technologically mediated instructional techniques and, for the truly damned, consignment to distance education, flipped classrooms, the generation of quantified learning objectives and outcomes – all in language that is implausibly technocratic and never the same from year to year. If that's what is meant by thinking about teaching, then I have no interest in it – other, perhaps, than to criticize and, on a good day, to subvert it. It's the working out of the corporate version of higher learning and it needs to be slowed, stopped and reversed.

    If, on the other hand, thinking implies reflection, engagement and the promotion of what is known as critical pedagogy, then I am all for it. There will be repercussions, of of course. Management will become annoyed, tremulous colleagues will avoid you, you can kiss promotion good-bye and you might even be sacked for subversion of the institution's "mandate" or "mission" – though you'll be staying loyal to whatever is left of authentic education.

  • Robert V-M

    Some good points here! Even though I do not go as far as some of what Howard has put forward, I do think there are interesting points here. I actually was going to post something here before deciding to respond to this nice lead-in for me (!), that there is very much an element of "thinking too much about things" but also at times "not thinking enough about things" to it all. It is a tricky give-and-take I believe.

    We, I believe can totally overthink teaching and learning at times (as with anything!) and sometimes this can create snowball situations in that one could be struggling with their teaching and then will forget that sometimes the best answer to the struggles is to not overthink it all and just jump back in and have fun.

    Or to get a bit in defense of the "scholarship of teaching and learning" angle, yes we can indeed overthink all this writing up of specific learning objectives to the point that we no longer have a clear sight of what we initially wanted with those objectives. But again something like this go in different directions, for sure we can overthink writing learning objectives, but at the same time we can also totally dismiss thinking about what are our basic learning objectives. This can be as simple of asking oneself, why did I become a teacher. Sometimes that is all we need to re-calibrate our teaching (and the student's learning). and to be able to identify how we may have over time forgot these basic objectives (and our motivations) with all kinds of other worries and considerations; for example the "oh, I need to use or that technology because all these students expect it, even though I would never normally use it myself" thinking, which in the end if we step back we see it does not really fit with the basic objectives we may have for the class.

    I think this also leads to the overthinking of evaluation too, and yes this then plays into the problems with student end of the term evals. But this is another topic for another day!

    I also will defend thinking about the need to think about ed tech, for that is what I am interested in and do support in and it is important to think about this important component of teaching and learning, but also do second some of Howard's thoughts here and for a group of support people who sure complain about professors putting too much confusing "jargon" out there in their instruction, we as a group sure do indeed put out a lot of techno-jargon.

    Anyways, my two-cents.

  • Michael Maguire

    Thanks, Maryellen, Howard and Robert! There ARE days when I find myself saying, "Methinks….too much!" I appreciate Maryellen's thoughtful (no pun!) treatment of this 'reflexive praxis' approach to teaching and learning. I'd argue with you, Howard, that some notions of thinking about teaching have been bureaucratically-/technocratically-skewed (did someone say, MOOC's?). And Robert, I have a favorite mentor who's spin on your "why did I become a teacher?" question/reflection is similar, "remind yourself of where you began, as a teacher" (as in, "I have such a passion for this profession – teaching and learning – that I MUST teach!").

    Currently, I struggle with the contrived parameters of our institutions and how they are – in some ways, on some days – obstacles to our thinking about teaching. We pressure – and over-emphasize to – junior faculty the "publish-or-perish" trope. We measure everything – "if learning can't be assessed, then there was no learning." What can complicate the 'thinking about teaching & learning' is the stress I (sometimes) feel about not being able to "think OUT LOUD" about it – with others. Heaven forbid if I venture too far into a discussion about "active learning," or "engaged teaching," lest I get my hand slapped for not being rigorous enough ("how is it that students seem to have FUN in your classes? are they really learning anything?" ugh!).

    Let's soldier on, though! Our students deserve our good thinking about what we do 🙂

    – Michael Maguire, Faculty Associate
    UW-Madison School of Human Ecology
    UW-Madison Teaching Academy Fellow

  • NJ Nielsen

    I have been teaching in the Ontario community college system for 30 years. For the past six years, I have been enrolled in on-line doctoral studies in higher education (US) to supplement my professional development. In my opinion, this effort has improved my approach toward supporting student success, but the bottom line is the personal satisfaction of learning beyond daily routines and minimum requirements.