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Thinking about Teaching and Learning

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.

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.