How do we teach?

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by funkandjazz

Today I read a post that argued students like lectures, even the so-called “digital natives.” I even read some of the comments. I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the post, wanting to discuss with the author and many of the commentors although I felt pretty clearly that I did not want to engage there. Instead, I needed some space to think through my issues and concerns.

I begin with the understanding that this is a blog post, not a research article. This is someone presenting an opinion, based on somewhat informal surveying of the author’s students. I don’t expect a lot of reference to research since the title was not about how students learn best. The post is about what students like.

That was actually one of my issues. The students, many of whom are supposedly in Education, reported disliking having teaching methods they were currently learning for use in their own practice turned against them in the classroom. Oh? You say that you dislike being forced to learn in these ways but you are also learning that these ways are effective and good to use with the students who you will be teaching? Hmm. That should be raising flags. Those students should be questioning things. They should be asking why they are expected to teach in ways they themselves dislike learning. Or they should be asking why they dislike learning that way so much if it is actually considered good practice. I’m currently a grad student in Education and I see a lack of connection between what students are learning and how they are learning. I constantly want to get meta. I want to ask about the curriculum design of a course on curriculum design. I want to talk about pedagogy and question it when someone says they are doing something for pedagogical reasons. I think we should practice what we preach, both in our teaching and our learning.

But leaving aside my own frustrations, relying on what students like to determine teaching methods can be rather dangerous. The real question is whether they are learning the things they need to learn. Do our students need to learn how to work in groups or collaborative environments? Do they need to be taught cooperative measures, do they need to know how to cope with committees? If they do, then leaving out group work because it is difficult doesn’t function. It is the instructor’s responsibility to find ways to facilitate the students learning the skills. Maybe class time needs to be devoted to group work if most students are commuter students. Maybe there needs to be facilitation of online, asynchronous discussion if that works better. Maybe there should be discussion of ways technology can ease the communication process.

Maybe we should take responsibility for learning rather than teaching.

I wholeheartedly agree that I expect to learn things from the instructor. I very much expect that. I don’t necessarily require them lecturing at me to achieve that, however. Sometimes it works great. Sometimes I should be applying the knowledge and asking questions. Sometimes I can start with having done the reading, being prepared, and sorting out my confusion with the expert present. Maybe they know more than I can find in the textbook or want to help me balance my approach or my knowledge. Or, as one moves from very intro level to more knowledge, maybe the instructor needs to pose questions and facilitate discussion, encourage peer instruction, add the benefit of their experience that goes beyond the basics.

We need to keep in mind that many of our students are accustomed to being told what to learn, told what to know, told how to know it. Some have experienced other ways of learning but many would very much like to sit and be told what matters.

I am experiencing learning in a totally new field and, more and more, I appreciate the fantastic instructors I have had. I appreciate those who encouraged me to think, to participate, to engage. I appreciate those who shared their knowledge and experience without expecting me to be passively absorbing. I even appreciate the group work I have done, as much as I have hated it. I learned some great skills along the way. Most of all, I learned.

The classroom is not about how you teach. It is about how you encourage your students to learn and what you contribute to that.

Another pet peeve, of course, was the assumption that clickers themselves have anything to do with other ways to teach, or that clickers cannot require thought. A clicker is just a tool. As is a cell phone. If used well, with significant thought, asking some questions that can be responded to with an answer of a, b, c, d can lead to learning. It isn’t learning in and of itself. Designing the questions asked or the activities that frame those questions are where thought leads to learning. Derek Bruff did a lot of work on clickers and I learned a lot about probing questions from his work, however those questions are applied. It takes work on the part of the instructor, though.

It all comes back to work and effort. For student and instructor. So if your lectures are working, if you are engaging your students in critical thinking, helping them learn, great. But if you are holding up student preference as a reason to keep doing it without questioning why… I’ll just find another course to take.

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