December 15th, 2014

Our Weekly Conversation about Teaching and Learning


In this the final post for 2014, I wanted to say thanks to those of you who take time to add comments after the posts. I don’t respond because I’ve had my say. However, I do read every comment and often wish I could gather a group of you together for coffee (maybe something stronger, it is the holiday season) and continue the conversation.

We are still struggling with finding time and venues that expedite conversations about teaching and learning. The most pressing teaching issues of the moment tend to occupy our attention—test questions we need to write, reaction papers to record, the technology needed for a class activity tomorrow, or that routinely absent student who wants an extension. When we do encounter each other, we talk about these daily details but not about issues that merit deeper discussions.

Sometimes I’m not sure we know how to talk about teaching. Most of us don’t have much in the way of educational background, so we start with the two things we know best: our content and our experiences. Departmental conversations and exchanges with faculty who teach in the same field invariably drift toward content. We focus on what we teach rather than how we teach.

Or we talk about our experiences—what we’ve learned in the crucible of the classroom. Most of that learning has been significant, sometimes painful but always formative. It’s the bellwether against which all other pedagogical knowledge is measured. The problem here, and this is not the first time I’ve written about it, is that we can draw from experience a whole series of wrong conclusions. It’s only natural that we would start with our experiences, but we shouldn’t stay there. Pedagogical knowledge grows out from those experiences.

We still get most of our instructional ideas and information from conversations with others. Most of us don’t read many books or articles on teaching and learning. There aren’t strong norms expecting us to and then there are the materials themselves. I am regularly reminded that the vast majority of these resources aren’t what you’d want on your bedside table unless insomnia is a problem. We’ve locked ourselves into thinking that pedagogical scholarship can’t be legitimate unless it is a book or referred article, preferably reporting research. Maybe that nails the quality issue, but is our pedagogical scholarship improving practice?

Technology is making so many new things possible, like an asynchronous conversation responding to a blog post. We write from different places, we teach at different kinds of institutions, our students have different learning needs, we may not know much about each other’s content, and yet there are important aspects of teaching and learning that transcend these differences. We can share insights, views, understandings, and perspectives that prompt others to reflect, think more or differently, and sometimes a reply to a comment.

Are these the kind of conversations that improve teaching and learning? I’m not sure. What worries me a bit is that technology, combined with our fast paced lives, makes the quick response easy—that first thought that comes to mind, the answer that looks obvious, that definitively stated opinion. It’s that sense of needing to deal with the inbox, deleting what’s there against the incoming onslaught. How do we slow ourselves down, so that responses are more measured, reflective, reasoned, and wise?

Don’t misunderstand. Many of the comments I’ve read on the blog illustrate those criteria. And very few have ever been less than courteous. We don’t always agree. We see teaching and learning from very different places, and I don’t always have it right. But our disagreements are civil and for that my sincerest thanks.

Blog posts and comments—a new way to converse about teaching and learning. Thank you for your contributions which add rich details to the post—something useful you’ve picked up along the way, a reference to yet another source, a different perspective, a point that the post failed to make, a question that should have been raised. I see the posts as discussion starters. The comments make it a conversation with content that we may mull over more in our minds and then talk about still further with our favorite pedagogical colleagues.

Best wishes for the holiday season.