We Don't Need a 'Revolution' to Improve Teaching
A Nobel prizewinner wants to study active learning. What if there's a shorter route to those goals?
Nobel Prize winning physicist and Stanford professor Carl Wieman is a proponent of active learning in the college classroom and believes it could "revolutionize" learning.
Prof. Carl Wieman believes the large college lecture as traditionally practiced is an ineffective teaching tool.
Prof. Carl Wieman is bothered that quality teaching is not valued inside of university systems the privilege research and publishing and prestige and that we should reexamine the criteria we use for the pursuit and rewarding of tenure.
Prof. Carl Wieman views his role as a teacher to be a “cognitive coach” rather than a “sage on the stage.”
Me too. Though, I would add “cheerleader for learning” to my coach role.
Prof. Carl Wieman believes that better teaching methods lead to better student learning.
Prof. Carl Wieman thinks the problem of how to teach more effectively is something that can be “solved.”
Perhaps our different points of view stem from Wieman’s background as an experimental physicist, where carefully designed studies and observation can indeed “solve” certain questions, while I am a writer and teacher of writing, and I believe that teaching is a fundamentally human process, far too complex and changeable for it to ever be solved.
Put another way, there are too many variables when it comes to teaching for us to ever come close to solving it.
This isn’t to say it can’t be studied, or we should just throw our hands up and say, “whatevs.” I continually experiment in my classes as I try to iterate towards more effective techniques for my students to engage with the problems of writing. I do my best to measure those effects as well, both by evaluating their writing, but also through asking students to engage in reflection in an effort to help them build a metacognitive awareness of their own learning.
Wieman thinks we should compare what happens at Ohio St. v. what happens at Stanford v. what happens at Harvard, and wants the best practices to rise to the top. I am all for investigations and sharing of information and techniques and much more robust conversations about teaching and learning, but engaging in this work makes me realize that teaching effectiveness will always be a moving target.
The students at Ohio St. are not the same as students at Stanford. We cannot say what works best for some works best for all.
It gets worse. The students in my 8am class are not even the same as the students in my 1:40pm class. At 8am, my students are just waking up, often sluggish of spirit and mind. At 1:40pm, they can be borderline raucous, ready for the day’s end.
I must use different approaches and techniques in each one in order to try to stoke engagement. The students I teach today have much in common with the students I taught 15 years ago, but at the same time, a lot has changed.
Physics is bound by laws. Human culture and behavior, not so much.
I think of teaching the same way I think of writing a novel. There’s lots of things we “know” about writing a good novel. We can observe previously written novels and note commonalities, even develop theories of what makes a “good” novel “good,” and indeed, I both teach and attempt to practice these things.
But then I will read a book that defies everything I’ve thought about “good” novels and I am reminded that there will never be a formula.
Prof. Wieman is searching for a unicorn, which exist in novels, not real life.
So while I am 100% on board with Prof. Wieman’s philosophies and his very laudable goal of improving undergraduate instruction, I am bothered by this notion of “solving.”
That route inevitably drives us towards systems and systematizing and that is the mess that we currently find ourselves in when it comes to K-12 education.
Let’s make teaching and learning more like a community garden, where we are free to sample and graze and see what tastes best for us and our particular palates and diners, rather than a business marketplace that begets something like The Olive Garden, sort of good food for the average person that doesn’t actually exist.
As with novel writing, or cooking, there are no “best practices” when it comes to education. Great chefs first think about flavors, freshness, deliciousness, not technique. The operate from a system of values that gives rise to choices about how to prepare the food.
Writing is the same way. Teaching too.
When we fetishize a solution, we seem to lose sight of the real problem.
In this case, as much as I agree with Prof. Wieman about the need to improve undergraduate instruction and support his goal to study it, if we put our focus on the measuring of learning, rather than on teachers and learners, we will put a lot of effort into creating the apparatuses of measurement. This is the kind of privileging that Prof. Wieman finds objectionable (me too), when it comes to tenure and promotion at research universities.
The truth is, thanks to Prof. Wieman and many others who came before him, we know a lot about the benefits of active learning. There isn’t really an argument to be had about which approach holds more promise.
If we look at teaching from a foundation of values, rather than the surface-level of methods, there is a shorter path we could follow if we really care about student learning.
Empower the people inside our institutions who are doing so much of the teaching – adjunct and contingent faculty - to teach in circumstances that are conducive to effective teaching.
Pay these faculty a wage that allows them to work at only one institution, rather than many.
Provide them with the security and support necessary to allow them to invest in their students, their institution, and themselves.
Give them class sizes that allow for the kind of close student/teacher content that we know helps students learn.
This last item sits particularly awkwardly in my craw this time of year. In many ways, I am lucky to only have 20 students in my first-year writing courses, and yet, all available research says this is still too many, and a writing-intensive course is more effective when capped at 12-15 students. If you want me (and legions of others) to teach to maximum effectiveness, make this happen.
We know more than enough about teaching to make teaching more effective.
What we lack is the will to put that knowledge into practice. It shouldn't take a revolution.
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