Monday, September 06, 2004

The Pedagogy Paradox: why we talk about everything but teaching

It's a great feeling to be a part of an institution that values intense interaction between faculty and students. Now that I've made my loyalty clear, I'm about to break ranks. Please forgive me, my professorial friends.

Even at the finest undergraduate institutions, there are instructors with poor classroom skills. There! Somebody has finally said it in public.

Even instructors with pretty good instructional technique could benefit from the ability to understand more about how instructional methods affect student learning.

Even fantastic instructors have sometimes come by their prowess intuitively, so they don't necessarily have the vocabulary for explaining their practices to others. These instructors are trained to be expert psychologists, mathematicians, or religious scholars, but their methods may be a talent. Perhaps they rely on their ability to replicate the practices that their own favorite teachers used.

If we accept the premise that educational method is a domain of applied social science, I've always found it curious how conspiratorial those in higher education can be about placing practitioners in a field that so few have actually studied. I've always suspected that the root of academia's unwritten code of silence is the fear that smart people have of being exposed for not knowing. Why do our high-powered students underutilize reference librarians as they research? Why are so many students afraid to ask questions in class when they're confused? Is it that admitting that you lack mastery, that you simply don't know something, is a taboo within a subculture that one can only enter by proving that you are a member of the knowledge elite? One has to muster a great deal of courage to say, "I need help." Scratch the surface a little and you expose a great paradox for a community that's supposed to be about learning. Even among our intellectual elite, we've still managed to create cultural barriers that stifle the vitality of inquisitiveness. Shame is a great enemy of curiosity.

That's the dark side. On the brighter side, many students appreciate their interpersonal interactions with faculty and peers more than any other aspect of their college educations. One often hears comments from students about how much they value what they've learned from other students--everything from vigorous dining hall discussions to sudden revelations in a match clinic or lab group. There is also something to be said for being at an institution that strives to focus on undergraduate learners, even if it doesn't always live up to its full promise.

The difference-maker between the two sides of the pedagogy paradox is trust. We do not make ourselves vulnerable unless we feel safe to do so. When trust exists between the members of a learning community, when people feel free to take social risks, when the room doesn't contain a potential for ridicule, both students and faculty will engage more openly. Surely, there are other factors that have an impact on educational effectiveness. Nevertheless, sparking inquiry and investigation is the critical first step for any educational process that has hopes of going beyond mere informational transfer into original analysis and synthesis. This is the very heart of the liberal arts education. I have seen first hand how well it can work, but I also know that sometimes it doesn't.

An effective system for students to evaluate courses is an important tool that faculty need, even if they fear it. Such evaluations have to be designed to induce appropriate responses at the right time. After a course has been completed, it's fine to know how it went. It would be even better to do an evaluation mid-course, when there is still time to address problems that students are having. Evaluation, like any form of job performance, is only worthwhile if it allows you to change the future.

Some schools have more formalized ways of addressing the quality of instruction. At some, centers for teaching and learning conduct programs to expose faculty to relevant educational theory and help them work on their pedagogical methods. Duke has even dividing the faculty into those who teach and those who research. (See the article on the Chronicle of Higher Education on Professors of the Practice.) Of course, that model probably wouldn't work at small, undergraduate-only institutions. There's also something potentially lost when teaching no longer informs research and vice versa.

I sincerely believe that all academics who teach would benefit from having a basic conversance in educational theory. Having taken the core Education course sequence at Swarthmore a few years ago, I believe from my own experience that you don't have to go to work on an Ed.D. to grapple productively with multiple intelligence theory or understand learning styles. Dabbling in constructivist learning principles can be both fun and useful. Understanding the notion of creating a community of learners within the classroom might help instructors to foment the kind of trust within the classroom that encourages honest group learning. After all, if college is supposed to be more advanced than being at high school, good college instructors might be helped by knowing at least what good secondary teachers know.

It's ultimately not about reading the right articles. It's about access to support. Every institution should have a program of training, support for professional development, avenues to get mentorship, or at least a standing forum for discussing classroom practices. In rare moments of candor, faculty friends have told me that they are left to their own devices when it comes to their pedagogical practices. You do a disservice to any professional when you put them in a circumstance that's not designed for their success.

Why should I care, and what place am I in to raise these questions? I don't teach undergraduates, so I hardly consider myself the most appropriate person to broach the topic. But I do have a reason.

We academic technologists are supposed to be helping faculty with technologies that aid pedagogy. But how we can we talk about pedagogical uses for technology if we can't talk about pedagogy? A lot of the tools that we have to offer right now are really not effective educational tools unless the instructor has a committed strategy for employing them within a framework to exploit their possibilities. Course management systems, blogs, and wikis can be used in rather shallow ways, or they can be essential collaboration tools. Everything comes back to whether the professor has given thought to building the community of learners within a class or seminar. If a blog, discussion board, team GIS project or video production supports group inquiry, they can be exciting capstone activities.

The problem is discussing the difficult pedagogical topics, which I think I know a little about, but with a lot of limitations. People who teach need to learn from people who teach. My niche is but a small aspect of the bigger picture. Nevertheless, I'd love to be a part of building a community of learners who were studying about building communities of learners.

How do we make that happen?


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