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.

  • Perry Shaw

    Dear Maryellen: Thank you for your guidance through the Faculty Focus. I always enjoy reading the ideas that are presented. Looking forward to next year's stimulation.

  • Nancy Fire

    Hi, we in faculty development use Faculty Focus as a core material for our work. Perhaps we can start giving back because we do have that theory, that deep thinking about teaching and learning and those nagging questions. Love to hear from fellow faculty developers out there. Nancy Fire, UNT

  • Kathleen

    Thank you for this very thought-provoking article. You've brought up several key issues for your readers to mull over for discussion, perhaps at a later date. In the meantime, best wishes for Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year.

  • I so enjoy the conversation on your Teaching Professor Blog.
    Best wishes for a restful holiday Maryellen.

  • Hanh Huynh

    Dear Maryellen. Thanks so much for all of your postings and advices. I shared them with my colleagues too. I could not agree with you more on the current society that we are living in. We are expected to do so much in our daily tasks of teaching and then coming back to the office with lots of emails waiting which always make my blood pressure go up. Recent study indicated that if we look less at our inbox, it will be better for our health. In regards to teaching our students, I am trying to raise awareness in my colleagues at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada about "Cognitive Overload". We just keep dumping more materials as new information arrives without taking out the old content; I refer this behaviour in human as "Choosing the Path of Least Resistance": it is a natural behavior. So what I am trying to do to address this "Cognitive Overload" issue is to be conscious of the previous knowledge that my students have and then develop my lectures just the appropriate amount for the intended schedule. I am practicing the principle of "Less is More" in learning; my students appreciate that. Hopefully, with my role modeling, other colleagues will do the same. Best wishes for a happy holiday Maryellen and thanks again for all of your works. Hanh Huynh

  • Pat_Johnson

    One sentence really jumped out at me– "How do we slow ourselves down, so that responses are more measured, reflective, reasoned, and wise?" As I sit at my computer compiling student learning outcome data from sociology essay answers on finals, I realize this is my main goal for my students. I want them to slow down. I want them to reflect, reason, and be wise. Have we become a society that doesn't do these activities anymore? I hope not.

  • Bridget Arend

    I just copied down, "is our pedagogical scholarship improving practice?" to post on my desk – something to reflect on over the coming year. Thank you for the inspiration.

  • Terry Brown

    Thank you for your thoughtful posts. I always appreciate Faculty Focus.

  • alerougetel

    And major thanks to YOU, Maryellen, for your diligence in providing readable and useful posts three times a week – either written by you or by others – that help me in my teaching. The best of the season to you and to all the contributors to this online community of learning…

  • aiaswtas

    Maryellen, your thought this week really hit home. A group of colleagues teaching (most as adjuncts) in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio have created the ANTHROPOLOGY TEACHING FORUM for just such conversations as you mention between department colleagues. We discuss broad and specific issues related to teaching anthropology and often our topics relate to inspiration found in Faculty Focus articles. The complement of face-to-face peer discussion and broader social media type discussion (as here) is personally very inspiring and helpful. I would encourage everyone to create a forum like ours. It has been immeasurably helpful (and sometimes consolatory) to all of us. We have a website here: and our meeting recaps are cross-posted on the University of Toronto Press blog called Teaching Culture:

  • Michele Meischeid

    I also have shared numerous Faculty Focus articles with colleagues to help broaden their teaching knowledge. Most instructors are very appreciative of the content found in the articles. Living in a rural area does not lend itself to many professional development opportunities; so, anything I can send them through email to read is an excellent way to spread information to many.
    Thanks for all of your informative articles! Looking forward to 2015 and the many articles you will be posting! 🙂

  • davidjterrell

    Thank you Maryellen for all the hard work you put into helping other like me to be better teaching professors! Hope you have wonderful holidays, and the very best for the new year!

  • Nicholas D

    Thank you Maryellen, this post was spot on. I agree that technology is making new things possible as you mentioned. I have decided to create a blog about how educators can begin using more technology in the classroom. As you mention, students have many different learning needs and I feel as educators we need to do our best to support those needs. Please feel free to follow my blog at

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