Thursday, November 15, 2012

Am I Teaching the Wrong Way?

I've been teaching in higher education now for about 15 years. Like most academics, I'm pretty comfortable with my "style", and since I am now teaching a rotation of courses I've taught before I tend to take the easy road and do what I did before. That's not to say that I don't put a good bit of passion into my teaching - I still find the material fascinating, and I hope that comes across in class. But like many of my mid-career tenured colleagues, it's easier to stick with the well-worn grooves.

Exhortations to "keep things fresh" and "keep adapting" are important, but often not enough. Re-thinking what and how we teach is a very time-consuming exercise, and unless you're gunning for Professor of the Year the rewards for doing so are pretty thin. In most departments, as long as you're meeting your teaching obligations and your students are happy, you can keep doing the same thing for years.

In my field the emphasis has tended to be on learning ideas. We make students read things (textbooks or, better still, original intellectual works), we make them write about the ideas therein, we lecture in class about those ideas, we discuss them. Although we don't like to think of it in these terms, at its core there's a rote-learning heart to this approach. I gauge the success of an Intro to International Relations class, for example, by seeing whether students understand what anarchy is, can identify sovereign states, or can write an essay using concepts like levels of analysis or realist theory. Success is defined, on exams and in papers, by answering the questions "What did they learn?" or "What do they know?"

I am increasingly wondering whether this is the right approach - or, at least, whether it is the only right approach. This is partly in response to a growing conversation about critical thinking and learning outcomes (see this article from today's Chronicle for example). This is one of the responses we in higher education have put forward to the "is college worth it?" question - that we teach students "how to think", even if we don't have a really clear notion of how to measure that.

But a big part of my shift in thinking has come from my experience teaching in the completely different field of martial arts. When you teach a karate class, the focus ultimately is not on what students know; it's on what they can do. We do ask them to learn some facts along the way - usually, foreign terminology or particular traditions. But, at least in the tradition I've come up through, we don't teach these things by telling and then quizzing; we simply use the terms and do the traditions and over time, students pick them up. We expect students to know these things as they advance, but memorizing isn't the focus. We don't test them to see if they can count to ten in Japanese or Korean.

There's an element of this that can't apply in higher education - time. In studying martial arts, everyone learns at their own pace. Someone else may take a year to master something it takes me three years to be able to do. That's fine, since ultimately the emphasis is on the journey and how long it takes to get through the ranks can be different from person to person. That doesn't work in higher education, where we have defined time frames (quarters or semesters) and a lot of expectations about everybody finishing within (more or less) the same amount of time.

But maybe the focus on what you can do would be a useful shift. If I taught with an eye on skills and abilities rather than knowledge and facts, what might that look like? Maybe I'd play more games in class. Maybe I'd have to invent drills. Maybe I should go watch some math teachers, who may know more about this than I do (no one says, "do you know the math?" It's always, "can you do the math?")

I hope I can find the time to experiment with this in my next class (which just so happens to be Diplomacy & Negotiation). Will I be able to figure out how to assess students' abilities, or even what skills I want them to learn? I don't know. But for all our talk about helping our students become "critical thinkers" and "problem solvers", maybe we should start rethinking the way we teach. Or, at least, maybe I should.

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