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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

What Is the Soul of Teaching?

Instructional design? Instructional delivery? How about both?

February 18, 2019
 
 

Twice in my career I was handed whole course curriculum, and I could not have survived without them. 

Today, I could not imagine a scenario in which I accept someone else’s curriculum, even if I was teaching a new and unfamiliar course.

What’s changed? Time and experience.

I’ve been thinking about this since I ran across a blog post from Nancy Flanagan, a former teacher and now activist for public education. The post, “Defining ‘High Quality’ Curriculum” responds to a recent call by the Gates Foundation for teachers to apply to a grant designed to help produce ”high quality curriculum” aligned with “state standards,” the idea being that we can create a marketplace where teachers can go for the good stuff.

In the post Flanagan references a quote from Robert Pondisco, one of the most prominent voices in the school reform debate of recent vintage, and a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In a 2016 U.S. News & World Report article, Pondisco is concerned that teachers are going to Google to find instructional materials and curriculum (fair enough), and then goes on to argue that most teachers should not be spending their time developing curriculum because, “Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the capabilities of mere mortals.”

Huh?

I see things differently. I believe that developing one’s pedagogy by creating instructional materials is one of the highest callings for teachers. If one is capable of doing this, they will absolutely become an effective teacher, and more importantly, continuously improve past that initial threshold of competency. 

As Nancy Flanagan puts it in her post: “If teaching is not pedagogy and instructional design, what is it that teachers are supposed to be doing?”

School reformers have put a lot of energy into the development of “high quality curriculum.” Here’s Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute lamenting the difficulty of dispersing high quality curriculum through a complex and convoluted education marketplace. It’s not just that we don’t have enough high quality curriculum, we can’t sell it to teachers and schools.

It’s true, at various points in one’s career, particularly early on, instructors benefit from access to good curricula. Contra the gentlemen from the Fordham Institute, however, the goal for all teachers should be to get to where they have less and less need for that assistance. As Nancy Flanagan says, this is teaching.

The first time I was handed a whole course curriculum was when I was starting at Virginia Tech, teaching a course called Communication Skills, a two-semester sequence that combined first-year writing, intro to communication studies, and public speaking. It was the required gen ed FYW course for all communication and business majors.[1]There were six of us teaching the course, all full-time lecturers with relatively decent pay, coming from a variety of backgrounds, some communication, some English. Because of its nature, it was difficult to find instructors who had teaching experience in all aspects of the course, so you were hired and supported in the areas of lesser familiarity.

I’d never taught public speaking. I’d never taught communication studies. I was fortunate that the course was created and coordinated by Dr. Marlene Preston, an expert pedagogue who rooted Comm Skills in a set of values consistent with my own, even if I could not entirely articulate what those values were at the time. We had common assignments and similar deadlines, but the route through those assignments was up to us. Being given the scaffold on which to hang our teaching not only benefitted the individuals, but provided a framework for the group to collaborate on the problems of teaching. 

Many techniques that made it into my pedagogy come from working inside the common curriculum with other instructors. The experiences were invaluable to putting me on a trajectory where I could own my own curriculum.

I wasn’t quite there when I started at Clemson University and was tasked with teaching four sections of technical writing. I had professional experience with tech writing, but I’d never taught it. Fortunately, I was given a curriculum by Dr. Summer Taylor and was encouraged to use it if I found it helpful. 

I did, following it to the letter the first semester, and then steadily modifying my approach each semester after that until the original curriculum’s DNA was still obviously present, but the course was also definitively “mine.”

The animating force to my teaching has been engaging in a process of developing a pedagogy consistent with my own beliefs and values. This has led to small things like dropping my strict attendance requirement, and somewhat larger things like ungrading my classes.

It has now resulted in publishing a full book of my writing curriculum The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing. The book is designed for self-study or adaptation to a class by an instructor. In this way it is similar to what I was given by Drs. Preston and Taylor. My hope is that instructors who find themselves on a journey similar to mine can make use of it with their students, while over time, I fade into the background, present, but not dominant, the same way the work of others is present in my curriculum.

This brings us to the need for “high quality” curriculum in schools, and why school reformers perceive that need. 

Robert Pondisco asks the most important question, “Is the soul of the work instructional design or instructional delivery?” 

Unfortunately, he has created a false choice which betrays a lack of appreciation for what teaching is, and how one improves as a teacher. It must be both because these things are inextricable. This does not mean I was a bad teacher when I was using someone else’s curriculum, not at all. It does mean that even when using someone else’s curriculum, the instructor must be working through the problems of instructional design. The process may reveal that someone else’s curriculum is an excellent fit. I hope that’s the case for The Writer’s Practice.

This is why I would not accept someone else’s curriculum for a new course now. It is only through the development of the pedagogy that I can be fully prepared to teach the new course. I expect my first time through a new course there will be shortcomings, but this is how learning works. We cannot expect to human-proof a human process. We shouldn’t want to.

If the instructor is not empowered to wrestle with the questions of pedagogy, even if they are starting from someone else’s pedagogy, we are doing them and their students a disservice. Even if we create this marketplace of “high quality curriculum” we should expect teachers to continue the work of instructional design because it is inextricable from instructional delivery. If school reformers are worried about the work teachers are doing, they should seek efficiencies elsewhere or perhaps recognize some important things are beyond the reach of efficiencies.

(Perhaps the first step is to address the overload teachers face in this country, given they spent 38 percent more time in the classroom than teachers in other developed countries.) 

As for higher ed, a good first step would be to establish secure and stable positions for the contingent teaching force that does the bulk of the instruction at so many institutions.

Seems like I say this on a lot of different issues: We know what works. Do we have the will to do it?

 

 

[1]English had its own two-semester required sequence, though unlike Comm Skills, those instructors didn’t have the same cohort of students both semesters.

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