April 27th, 2012

Word of Mouth Pedagogy: Our Oral Tradition of Sharing Ideas with Colleagues


If you ask a faculty member to think of a new technique, strategy, assignment, activity or policy they’re using in their classroom and you ask where they got the idea, “from a colleague” is the most common answer. Interesting, isn’t it, that so much of our pedagogical knowledge is transferred orally. The beauty of it is that ideas are easily and freely exchanged via this mode. Somebody gives you a good idea for dealing with an instructional issue and you don’t have to worry whether it’s copyright protected. You don’t need to know where the idea came from or who originated it. Best of all you can borrow it and make changes without anybody’s permission.

When ideas are exchanged orally, they don’t always retain the same form. We don’t repeat what we hear word for word. Some years ago a faculty member asked me if I’d ever heard of that dirty point idea used at the end of a lecture. I was confused. He tried to help, “it was proposed by that Italian guy.” I took a wild guess, “Do you mean Angelo and Cross’ muddiest point feedback strategy?” Maybe students are more motivated to ask questions about dirty points than muddy ones—was that the origin of this change?

Instructional ideas passed orally also change in transmission because people decide to make them their own once they’re implemented. That can be a good thing and the muddiest point strategy is a great example. It has been widely used by faculty in many different fields, and with all kinds of students. Numerous article have been written describing these different ways of soliciting and responding to feedback from students after they been introduced to new material, some parts of which they may not understand.

One of the big problems with the oral transmission mode for pedagogical knowledge is that it’s largely hit and miss. You may hear one or two good ideas but miss four or five that are better. The ideas you get depend on the colleagues you talk to and who they talk to and hear from. A few, and I do think it’s very few, good ideas pretty much make it around to everybody interested in teaching—the muddiest point strategy can be the example here, too, as well as Chickering and Gamson’s Severn Principles of Good Practice. I wish I understood how and why some ideas get around and others that are equally good, equally well substantiated by research and equally applicable to lots of different teaching situations aren’t as well known.

Another worry I have about this oral transmission of knowledge is that sharing good ideas this way doesn’t really establish the value or permanence of pedagogical knowledge. I cannot tell you how many times faculty have described for me a really innovative, unique, intellectually challenging activity and assignment—one that is a really good idea—and I will exclaim over its greatness, potential utility and end with, “you need to write that up! A lot of faculty could use that idea.” And almost invariably the response is a diminution of what’s been described. “Naw, it’s really just a simple idea. Most of it came from a colleague.” Or, “Other faculty are doing things like this. It’s not a new idea.”

Finally not all information passed along orally is equally good. In fact some of it is just plain bad. Anybody who’s taught has opinions about it and most willingly share what they think. I know, some published material isn’t all that high quality either, but at least there are some controls in place. It’s also true that wise teachers can separate the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, not all teachers are wise, especially those new to college teaching. But when pedagogical knowledge is shared orally, there are no quality controls.

Much of what we learn about teaching, we learn through conversations with colleagues. Our free and easy exchange of ideas and information has much to commend and just as much that should give us pause.