Several years ago I wrote my first piece for Inside Higher Ed — a meditation on what I learned about teaching from my tae kwon do instructor. I was thinking about that piece recently when, two weeks ago, I spent a week as a “student” in a faculty development workshop on course design. For a week I joined other faculty members and graduate students at the University of Virginia, where we focused on “backwards” course design as described by—among others — Dee Fink in Creating Significant Learning Experiences. It was a salutary experience, following right on the heels of the workshops that I had just led — I got to watch others planning and executing activities, got to work on my own materials instead of facilitating others’, and ended the week with a 90% complete syllabus, ready to go for the next time I teach the class.
While I learned a lot during the week, perhaps my most important take-away was a reinforcement of something I’ve been working on in my classes recently: a commitment to transparency. It’s something I’ve noted in my best teachers lately as well: my tae kwon do teacher frequently reminds us of the reasons for various exercises we do, as do the yoga instructors I learn from best. It’s interesting, though: while these instructors, teaching physical skills, frequently explain why we do what we do in class, I have rarely encountered a similar transparency in classroom teaching. And yet it seems to me increasingly valuable.
While my own (excellent) teachers and professors rarely explained why they did what they did in class, I am finding that the better I can articulate my reasons, and share them with my students, the better results I have. That is, you don’t have to write a paper, or discuss this novel, or analyze a poem, because I told you so; you have to write a paper because it is the best way I know to practice the skills of critical reading and thinking, as well as to communicate the results of that reading and thinking. And this specific paper will, I hope, build on the skills we worked on in the last few classes, or on the last assignment. I can’t, of course, be transparent if I haven’t actually thought through the exercises — if I simply replicate what I’ve always done before, or a model that I’ve inherited from someone else without thinking it through for myself. So it’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort. And when I am transparent about my methods and goals, I feel that I can ask for the same from my students: what do they want out of the class? What are they willing to commit? What strengths are they bringing in?
This last piece — shared transparency, if you will — is new to me, but I’m ready to give it a try. While I don’t subscribe to the commercial model of education Susan O’Doherty talks about in her latest post, I do want to know what my students want and expect. After all, if I don’t know what they are hoping for, or expecting, my approach may confuse or disorient them. The more transparent we can all be about our expectations, the more likely we are to achieve at least some of them—or revise them, if necessary. That is, I don’t expect to meet all my students’ initial expectations—few of them have really been given the chance to think hard about why they are in college or what they expect to get out of the experience themselves, beyond the obvious status and credentialing goals, and they may not start out ready to articulate their expectations beyond those. But as we work through them together, I’m hoping we can come to some shared goals and then do our best to start meeting them.