'What Our Stories Teach Us'

Author discusses new book on how faculty members can consider their own teaching and learning experiences to improve them.

June 27, 2013

The end of every semester leaves faculty members considering what worked and what didn't work in their courses. A new book, What Our Stories Teach Us: A Guide to Critical Reflection for College Faculty (Jossey-Bass), argues for a more critical examination of teaching and learning experiences, with the goal of becoming more effective. The author -- Linda K. Shadiow, professor emeritus of educational foundations at Northern Arizona University -- responded in an e-mail interview to questions about the book's ideas.

Q: What are professors' "educational biographies" and why are they important?

What we remember about classrooms we have been in (as students and as teachers) and about the interactions we’ve had in educational settings (from the earliest to the most recent) constitutes our educational biography. Along with the degrees we carry into our work as college professors, there are stories we could tell about what influenced our attaining those degrees. While the impact of our graduate school mentors is often acknowledged as it relates to how we approach our own scholarship, we rarely consider the impact of the legacy of stories from our years in other people’s classrooms. Into the courses we teach just as into the research or creative activity we do, we carry these stories. Some key ones influence how we approach students, see content, and define learning no matter what discipline we work in. A question raised by Aase about her son Peer Gynt in the Ibsen play by that name applies as much to our teaching as it did to young Peer’s growing up: "Who would have thought the stories would cling to him so?" In our professorial work, the related question is, "Which stories from our educational biographies 'cling' to us, and with what consequences?" Taking the time to reflect critically on key stories can help us learn about the teaching we do, the assumptions that undergird the approaches we choose, and the goals to which we aspire.

Q: Everyone has positive and negative experiences, both as a student and as an instructor. How does one discover the really important instances on which to focus?

All the stories we might remember and tell from our educational biographies are not equally influential in our work. If we tell someone about something that happened in a class -- present or past -- we are not likely to consider it as anything other than an anecdote. There are some features, however, that distinguish the entertaining or illustrative story from critical incidents, and understanding how pivotal incidents continue to echo through our instructional work begins with this distinction. Among the distinguishing features: the most significant stories persist in our memories; when prompted, we can reflect on them as having shifted a perspective we had at the time; their details remain so vivid that the story still evokes an emotional response. Discovering a few prominent stories with these characteristics can lead to some insights about the roots of our teaching, but more significantly, placing a series of such stories side-by-side and looking at what they have in common is richly productive. There is a story that links our critical incidents, and uncovering that story is a powerful key to growth.

Q: How does a faculty member turn these reflections into a path to improve one's teaching?

At a campus coffee shop a few years ago I had a very candid discussion with a colleague about teaching. In telling each other about recent classroom frustrations, we admitted that even after years of teaching, certain classroom challenges are flashpoints that can lead to our taking actions -- often unproductive, in that they can contradict how we view ourselves as teachers who impact student learning. There are layers of stories, a family tree of sorts, that exist beneath what rewards and what frustrates us in our instructional work just as in our research. Unearthing these stories and paying them a deepened level of deliberate attention can lead to discovering patterns of priorities we have and assumptions we act on in classrooms. Paths to growth emerge from linking the themes in critical incidents to their unarticulated influence on how we enact what we see as the purposes and means of instruction. We can rediscover our teaching by asking what those influences enable and constrain in our work, what they include and exclude in the choices we make. Our coffee conversation acknowledged tensions in our teaching, but there was not time to explore why those tensions exist and how to learn from and grow beyond them.
Q: Many professors -- especially those without tenure -- fear negative student evaluations of their teaching. Do you think student evaluations (whether formal or of the RateMyProfessors variety) should play a role in the reflections you encourage?

A: As I seek to learn about which stories in my educational autobiography "cling" to me and thus influence the assumptions I bring to teaching, I simultaneously ask, "and with what consequences?" I could not answer this question without taking student feedback into account. But, this has shifted how I look at formal student course evaluations. They are only one way to learn about how students experience learning in a course I teach. Because formal student evaluation items often ask more about what students think about me rather than about what helped or hindered their learning, I draw from a constellation of feedback approaches rather than focus on a single source. My goal is to gain insight into the impact my assumptions have on student learning.

Two questions provide a frame for this: "What do I hope to find in the evaluations and why?" And for both the formal and informal feedback students provide, "To what do I react most strongly (positively and negatively) and why?" Pathways to growth in teaching open up when these links between stories, assumptions, and consequences are made. From this stance, the role of informal feedback throughout a semester takes on heightened importance. A graduate student I once worked with wrote that there are "roots" in our stories that lead to "routes" we take in our teaching. This mixed metaphor suggests a goal to using both formal and informal feedback is to describe where those "routes" lead students and then to reflexively learn from that.

Q: Higher education is currently debating the arrival of MOOCs in which a single professor teaches hundreds of thousands, but may have no personal interaction with students. Can your approach be applied to mass teaching?

A: I can only respond to your question with more questions, because the work of critical reflection on teaching is personal to each of us who undertakes it. In that respect, it is as important for instructors no matter what our instructional contexts to become aware of what undergirds our teaching. What will be enabled if we can articulate our strongly held definitions of what it means to "teach" and "learn" whether in history, engineering, or anthropology for instance, or whether the setting is face-to-face, online, personalized learning or MOOC? When a new semester begins, what collection of expectations do we bring with us as we develop curriculum and meet students? How do we envision the role of the student, the instructor, and the content? Are our definitions context-dependent, and if so, with what consequences? So, the work of critical reflection can inform what we do (and where and how we do it). How can we strengthen our work through understanding what limits and what fuels our goals for impacting student learning, no matter what the format or setting?

I have heard the old adage that we teach the way we were taught. With critical reflection on the stories about a range of our educational experiences and with some hard work to locate common themes and assumptions in those stories, the way we were taught can become a prism rather than a blueprint. We can grow into new stories informed by previous ones but not limited by their persistence.


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