The Art of Teaching
“Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue can be taught, or is it acquired by practice, not teaching? Or if neither by practice nor by learning, whether it comes to mankind by nature or in some other way?” (Plato, Meno 70a)
I would first like to welcome everyone back. I trust you all had a productive summer. This promises to be an exciting term. This Fall, we re-launched our Pre-Engineering or Engineering Transfer Program, which we hope will be the start of something bigger. Our Nursing Pathways Program kicks off with nearly 80 students enrolled in the program. As well, the Global Citizen Cohort also starts this Fall. In this particular program students take five courses together around the theme of Water, Sustainability and Social Justice, across the areas of Science, Social Science and Humanities and Liberal Education. This promises to be an exciting new program which may provide a model on how to enhance our undergraduate curriculum and the first year experience. We have already had some preliminary discussion on developing a Science Core in anticipation of moving into the New Science Building.
Biological Sciences is working toward creating a Research Internship that begins with first year. All these efforts will enhance the student experience.
As for myself, in Spring 2016 I will have the privilege of teaching in the Global Citizenship Cohort. I am both excited, as I get to teach what I love, and a little nervous as I will need to tailor my course on Ancient Athens, which I have taught many time before, to fit the theme. Will it be successful? The last time I taught, I was left disappointed by my performance.
In the fall of 2009, at my last institution, I had the opportunity to teach the Intro Course to Greek Civilization, a large class of some 90 students, the kind of course I have always enjoyed teaching and regularly taught in Winnipeg. I love engaging first year students and had prided myself on having a certain measure of success. Much to my disappointment, however, my course evaluations were not what I would have liked; in fact, I scored below the university average. Yikes! What does that say about the Dean? Perhaps students in Ontario, I thought, were more discriminating than students in Manitoba, or more likely (and this may be closer to the truth than I would like to admit) my theatrics no longer commanded the attention of the audience as they once had. I had, as it were, become an old, tired actor. My enthusiasm for the material, it seems, could carry me only so far now and my
acting no longer engaged students in quite the same way as it perhaps had in the past. What I feared most was that I have disappointed my material and I would ultimately be relegated to performing way “Off Broadway”.
The point I am trying to make is that I have treated large lectures as theatre (“teaching as telling”), and my acting seemed no longer to inspire the audience; I needed to find new stage props, as it were, to help encourage the kind of deep learning, which should happen at university, and not the kind of surface learning, which I fear had come to characterize my teaching.
The Audience has changed
The first step, if you find yourself in my dilemma, is to recognize that the composition of the audience has changed. Students who now attend university are different from you and me in many ways, and perhaps different from the students I taught when I first began my career some twenty years ago. Certainly the generation gap is more pronounced. As Therese Huston (Teaching What You Don’t Know) [Cambridge MA, 2009]) notes in her chapter “Teaching Students You Don’t Under¬stand” (166-206), learning styles between faculty and students are different; they differ “in what and how they prefer to learn” (170). About 50 percent of university students are what researchers call “concrete active learners, which means they learn best when they can see things directly and when the concrete applications of an idea are immediate and obvious”
(170). They prefer to begin with an example and then move to theory. By contrast, only 10 percent of faculty are concrete active learners, and are instead abstract reflective learners, who are more interested in an idea for its own sake and prefer theories to concrete application. How often have we sat, over coffee and argued an idea to death with great pleasure. Only 10 percent of students are abstract reflective learners (obviously the ones who will go on to grad school and replicate us). The up-shot of this is, as Huston notes (191), “students and faculty generally prefer to receive information in different ways”, the implication being that there may be a certain disconnect between how we teach and how they learn.
Not only that, students are less engaged, spending less time on school related activities than in the past. Huston (172-4) provides some startling statistics, and though these are US numbers, the trends no doubt are similar in Canada. In the 1980s 73 percent of students reported that they spent 15 hours a week or more on preparing for class; by the 1990s only 65 percent and by 2008 only 35 percent of students spent 15 hours or more on class preparation, and 25 percent of first year and even senior students reported that they often went to class unprepared. Related to this trend is the fact that many more students are working or needing to work, and this fact speaks directly to the reality of our own students, many of whom depend on student loans and need to work.
Finally students are becoming increasingly pragmatic in that they are choosing degrees which they think will lead to a job. In 2007 in the US 327,000 students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Business compared to 164,000 in Social Sciences and History, 55,000 in English and only 21,000 in Physical Sciences. As Huston notes (174) this represents a 45 percent increase in the number of Business majors in ten years compared to an 18 percent increase in all other areas. Whereas English majors grew by 13 percent over that same period, applied areas, like Communications and Journalism, grew by 55 percent. Obviously, this trend toward more career oriented majors poses a particular challenge for us in the humanities, who must work doubly hard to engage students, who may not necessarily see the value of studying something that does not immediately appear relevant. But that is
challenge I relish.
As I reflect on my own past teaching and consider teaching this Spring, I wonder how much I need to shake things up for myself in order to become more effective in motivating students to learn, and what approaches I need to adopt to foster deep learning in students, who are concrete active learners, in place of surface learning. I must admit that the prospect of learning to use Moodle seems daunting; that is how antiquated I feel, at times.
My challenge to you now is to take some time to reflect on your own teaching. Is there something (an assignment, activity, etc.) that is no longer proving as effective as it once had? Perhaps it is time to make a change. Be bold and innovative. Don’t be afraid of failure. But here I offer some thoughts based on my reading of Huston. But, as always, first some Plato.
Teaching as recollection
There is a wonderful scene in Plato’s Meno (81c-85b) in which Socrates attempts to instruct a young slave boy in geometry. The scene in meant to illustrate Socrates’ (really Plato’s) theory of the immortality of the soul and consequently his notion that all teaching is recollection. Socrates sets out to prove to Meno that the boy is not learning but recollecting, by starting from the boy’s recognition of a simple square figure, which Socrates draws in the sand, and from there building on that knowledge to understand more complex geometry. At one point the boy hits an impasse as he tries to figure out eight square feet. At that point Socrates comments,
“There now, Meno do you observe what progress he (the slave boy) has already made in recollection? At first he did not know what is the line that forms the figure of eight, and he does not know even now; but at any rate he thought he knew then, and confidently answered as though he knew and was aware of no difficulty; whereas now he feels the difficulty he is in, and besides not knowing does not think he knows.”
Both Socrates and Meno conclude that the boy is better off, by having been brought to this point of aporia, “perplexity”, and by having been given, as Socrates describes it, a torpedo’s shock, that is a stingray shock. To this Socrates comments, “And we have certainly given him some assistance, it would seem, towards finding out the truth of the matter; for now he will push on in the search gladly, as lacking knowledge.” Before Socrates continues trying to draw out of the boy a deeper understanding of geometry, he states to Meno, “Now you should note how, as a result of this perplexity, he will go on and discover something by joint enquiry with me, while I merely ask questions and do not teach him.”
Modern research on pedagogy suggests that deep learning comes not from teaching as “telling” but from using the knowledge that students already possess and guiding them to a place of understanding, particularly if students can be brought to and through a state of aporia (a state I find myself in regularly). According to Therese Huston (Teaching What You
Don’t Know), deep learning is fostered by creating an environment in which students are motivated to understand ideas for themselves, encouraged to look for the big picture and the patterns in the material, and relate “the concepts in class to their own knowledge and experience.” By contrast surface learning
occurs when students are forced simply to cope with the course requirements; in such circumstances surface learners “tend to focus on the details rather than the big picture...on memorizing and reproducing those details” (52-3). We encourage deep learning in our students by involving them in finding meaning in the material from their perspective and by encouraging students to build on their existing knowledge (54). Since we all desire deep learning from our students (I assume that is a given), let’s consider some of Huston’s observations.
Huston recommends backward design. Her advice is intended for content novices, who might be forced to teach outside their area of expertise, but what she recommends might be of value, if we are thinking of redesigning an existing course, as in my case, or preparing to teach something new. Backward design, she suggests, will help “create an effective learning environment”, and help us avoid the situation, which I have often found myself in, trying to “tell students everything they need to know” (57). Invariably, when I taught Ancient Greek History, a 6-¬credit course, I would barely get past the end of the Peloponnesian War, when I should have gotten to, at least, the death of Alexander the Great. My colleague had the same problem on the Roman side; I don’t think he got past Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. But instead of rethinking how we should approach
the course, we each simply created another 6-credit course to cover the half we could not cover within a single course: brilliant teaching, now I had two years to drone on telling my students everything they needed to know about Greek History. God rescue us from that kind of purgatory!
Backward design, or planning backwards, avoids that dilemma by beginning at the end: what do I want students to be able to do as a result of taking my course. As Huston notes, “the emphasis is on what students can do, rather than what they will know” (her italics, 57).
The first step in backward design is to identify concrete learning outcomes: what do I want students to be able to do. As Huston points out, “students learn on the basis of what they do in your course, not on the basis of what you know” (60). Another way to approach this is to identify the big questions which you want your students to answer by the end of the course, critically and intelligently. Moreover the questions need to be compelling to students, since “people learn more deeply when they try to answer questions that they themselves have deemed important or interesting” (61).
The second step is to outline the kinds of evidence which will help you determine whether students have reached the competency of your learning outcomes or are able to answer that big question: so what kind of assignment will assist in that evaluation.
The third step is to determine “what you need to do as an instructor and what students need to do as learners to produce that kind of evidence”. So what materials will students need to read or research on; what kind of background information will you need to provide and what kind of practice will they need to do (58).
As Huston notes (59), backward design is very different from how we, or should I really say, how I typically approached course design, which begins with the calendar, followed by an outline of readings, then by determining how many assignments and tests students should write, and finally right at the end, almost as an afterthought, stating what I think students must know, which then leads me to introduce more readings and assignments. As Huston argues (59), such an approach to course design, without meaningful learning goals in mind from the very start or four or five big questions to give the course direction, “encourages a ‘coverage’ approach to teaching”, which does not promote deep learning but only surface learning, “which is short-lived and fragmented”.
Planning backwards “ensures that there is conceptual glue to hold the course together.” It helps “align our teaching with what students need to be doing” (59). Designing the course around big questions helps to achieve focus, what Huston refers to as the spotlight approach as opposed to the floodlight approach (74). As Huston notes, “research shows that teachers who use backward design more successfully connect the content of the course with other meaningful topics, a strategy that promotes deeper approaches to learning” (59).
Not only does Huston advocate designing your course around big questions, which help achieve the kind of focus needed to stimulate deep learning, she also suggests including at least one case study; as she argues, case studies are particularly good at stimulating deep learning, since “students are more intrinsically interested in the topic when they are trying to crack a case-based problem, which means they are less driven by grades and more driven by curiosity” (75). It may be easier in some disciplines than in others to include case studies, (after all Huston is a Psychologist, who is now the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Seattle University), but it has got me to thinking how I could incorporate one in Greek History.
Huston suggests that a good case study usually includes the following three elements: 1). A world scenario; 2). Data or evidence that must be analyzed; and 3). an open-ended question with no obvious answer. The third element may take the form of an assignment in which students “make a decision, propose a solution, or debate an issue” (75). With case studies, students, much like slave boy in the Meno, become active learners attempting to understand how things piece together rather than waiting passively for the instructor to fit things together perfectly for them. And we all know how great a teacher Socrates was.
Dean, Arts & Science
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