Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How can we learn to teach better?

Thanks to Michael for the kind, and humbling, introduction. I hope it won't seem like a cheat, but I thought I'd devote my opening post to a reading recommendation. The reason is that Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need--and What We Can Do About It is one of a handful of books that I'd like everyone in my profession to read, and frankly if I hadn't read it I probably wouldn't have accepted ISW's invitation to join up.

The reason I read Wagner's book has nothing to do with what I found so valuable about it. I was preparing a talk for teachers at a local high school on educational equity, and I knew that one of the teachers was obsessed with the "achievement gap" between American and foreign students, so wanted to learn more about it. And, indeed, Wagner is very clear about the kinds of things that our schools (and colleges) could be doing better for even our most advantaged students -- in particular failing to create opportunities for higher order cognition, and structuring their learning to produce the traits and skills that will serve them well in a global  economy (in this, and other respects, it is a nice complement to Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities which we'll be discussing later). He includes a nice, and in my experience quite accurate, critique of the AP History exams (I don't think my colleagues in English all agree with me, but AP English seems much better at eliciting the kind of curriculum in which students learn things that are valuable).

But what really grabbed my attention was his description of what he does at the Change Leadership Group at Harvard.
The Harvard program is focused on k-12 teaching. At its core is a workshop, in which groups of teachers (most of whom are unacquainted with one another previously) discuss videos of other teachers teaching in the classroom, led by Wagner or one of his colleagues. The aim is to develop a language for discussing instruction -- and to come to some sort of interpersonal agreement on standards of practice. Like most teachers, his participants have spent very little time observing other teachers do what they do, and are not practiced in rigorous detail-oriented discussion of what works and what doesn't. Initially the reactions to what they are observing are very diverse -- there is no agreement about whether what is being done is good or bad teaching. But over the course of the workshop the participants develop a common understanding, and a language for expressing it.

The idea is simple. If teachers were engaged in mutual observation and had resources to discuss what they were seeing and doing, they could begin to learn from one another, thus improving their practice. To use an analogy that Wagner doesn't use, it's like learning a musical instrument. You learn by watching and listening to others, noting what they do, mimicking it, practicing endlessly, subjecting your practice to your own critique and that of others, in the light of continued observations of others who are better than you are (or who are better in some particular way that you can improve). I suppose there are musical geniuses who learn some other way, and no doubt there's a handful of teachers who are so naturally gifted that mutual observation wouldn't improve things, but that's not most of us. Reading Wagner, for the first time, I started to see how it could be that we could improve our teaching collectively, by deploying the kind of inter-subjective scrutiny of our efforts that we already apply to our research (you never publish anything unless it has been scrutinized by at least one other person, and you aim to get it scrutinized by as many people as feasible before committing it to publication).

My wife consistently points out to me that the schools which actually adopt Wagner's process as part of their ongoing professional development are quite unusual -- they tend to be schools in which teachers have a fair amount of discretionary time, and which are pretty well run. Not like most. But research universities with undergraduate colleges within them, and small liberal arts colleges do seem to me to have the conditions in which a program like this could profitably be adopted.

The other natural worry about the Wagner method is whether the group is, in fact, learning the right things. Are they harnessing individual insights to develop group wisdom, or individual prejudice to develop an unquestioned orthodoxy? What they are not observing within the group is whether any students are actually learning anything which is, after all, what actually constitutes success in teaching.

Learning is hard to measure, and it's especially hard to measure the aspects of learning which really matter (the development of skills, enthusiasm for, and long-term retention of the material). In college, at least in the humanities, we make no effort at all to gauge learning --- we reward students for and celebrate their performance rather than their learning. We don't even have common interpersonal standards for what counts as quality performance -- we grade our own students' work, not one another's, and rarely sit down with a set of papers and discuss with one another what we value in the papers (and what we don't).

So there's a leap of faith in adopting a model like Wagner's, based on confidence in i) the capacity of the people involved for judgment and ii) the deliberative value of interpersonal discussion. I'd like to see something like Wagner's model adopted in a few places, ideally alongside some experiments in aligning standards and curriculum across classes within particular departments. Anyway, I'm recommending the book, and curious whether anyone knows similar models operating in higher education. I'm aiming to pilot a program not completely unlike Wagner's among a multidisciplinary group of faculty this coming Fall (see here) and will report on what we do.

(Cross-posted, as many of my posts will be, at CT)


  1. You're off to a flying start here, Harry!

    [part 1 of a 2-part comment]
    An anecdote: About four years ago, a student came to me seeking advice about which classes to take and asked 'what is Dr. X like as a teacher?' Dr. X is a departmental colleague, and while I had no reason to doubt that Dr X was at least a competent teacher, the thought in my head was having never seen Dr. X teach, I don't know thing one about what Dr. X is like as a teacher! So I gave what I recall was a mumbling non-committal answer ("solid," "experienced," along those lines).

    This drove home to me a number of conclusions:
    a. Most of us teach in a vacuum, having very few opportunities to observe or investigate how others teach.
    b. Because of a., our initial formation as teachers is much more influenced by our experiences as students than by experiences wherein we observe other teachers while wearing our "teacher hats," so to speak.
    c. Because of b., we tend to teach as we were taught, unwittingly assuming that the techniques that were effective in inducing us to learn will also be effective for our students.
    d. In higher education at least, b. and c. are problematic because most every teacher was an exemplary student and thus differs dramatically from the students being taught.

    It was a.-d. that led me to start ISW and do some investigating of the scholarly literature on teaching.

  2. [comment part 2]

    So as you might expect, initiatives like the Harvard program strike me as an excellent idea if for no other reason than they initiate evidence-based discussion of teaching, which (in my experience) is extremely rare. I share your worry, though, that participants could equally well end up affirming a misguided orthodoxy about what works.

    To my mind, this suggests we need to be able to blend two perspectives when thinking about how to improve our teaching. The first thinks of teaching as a craft, something learned 'on the job' through experience, trial and error, and continual tinkering with content, techniques, etc. Since different disciplines have different pedagogical aims, this perspective tends to suppose that teaching is a highly discipline-specific activity. This perspective tends also to resist the relevance of empirical research to improving one's teaching and tends to resist evidence-driven assessment (particularly but not exclusively, student evaluations) on the grounds that practitioners of the craft "know" what counts as good teaching.

    On the other side is the perspective of teaching as science, where teaching and learning are seen as fairly generic activities amenable to rigorous empirical investigation. From this perspective, teaching should be approached as a scholarly endeavor informed by the latest understandings of the brain, learning processes, etc. This perspective is suspicious that practitioners really do "know" what sorts of teaching generate student learning and so tends to prefer 'harder' evidence about teaching performance.

    The trouble here is that both perspectives are right and wrong. The craft perspective is too insular and wrongly supposes that whatever the craftsperson teaches is so distinctive that no generalizations apply. But that can't be right: The same students and the same student brains are being taught in philosophy classes that are being taught in calculus, accounting, and English classes. At the same time, the craft perspective is rightly suspicious that the 'science' approach doesn't appreciate the pedagogical facts on the ground and that we can't just effortlessly 'adapt' the findings from the scholarship of teaching and learning to our own classroom situations.

    In any case, I've seen many an argument between those with these perspectives. But surely improving our teaching requires both an understanding of learning as such and an understanding of the particular challenges faced by particular disciplines, etc. The worry about the Harvard program is that it looks (to my eyes) too 'crafty,' but it would be an excellent prelude to having some faculty think about their teaching from the 'science' perspective, thus achieving the integration between these two perspective that (in my estimation) is most likely to result in concrete improvements in teaching and learning.

  3. I also share the concern that the Harvard groups will converge on a local orthodoxy. I wonder if different groups tend to arrive at the same conclusions about what works and what doesn't.

    Has anyone here ever seen of video of their own teaching? Is it helpful?

  4. Welcome Harry

    Excellent, thought provoking post.

    I want to pick up on Michael's point 'a' relating to 'c' and 'd' in his 1st post and suggest a serious problem that needs to be addressed. The problem that I see with evaluating each others teaching is not that it is done in a vacuum but that it is now almost exclusively used for evaluation purposes for retention/promotion of faculty. My concern is that there will have to be clearly defined 'no penalty' phases of observation/evaluation if we are ever to get to the point where we can feel totally comfortable with having others watch and evaluate our teaching from the standpoint of possibly improving our own teaching. I have come across situations where the differences in teaching styles and philosophies have lead to negative consequences for the person being observed and evaluated simply because they did not teach in the style of the observers or have the same educational objectives regarding what they were trying to accomplish in their teaching. In order for observation/evaluation as a means to improve teaching to be successful, we have to be willing to admit that we can all make improvements in our teaching which might be difficult to achieve in the present climate of how we evaluate for retention/promotion.

    I also have a concern over the use of concepts like 'valuable' in so far as what we think is valuable is probably theory dependent and we might have different theories of education that might result in different ideas of what the goal of education should be and what is valuable to learn within a specific defined context.

    I think we should be prepared for an onslaught of criticism on focusing on the Humanities as a central tenet of a sound educational program. As we have read on other blogs, most notably Leiter's, many programs are in the process of having to defend their very existence in the face of economic hard times and I fear this is only going to increase as educational institutional administrations view education through a business modal lens using efficiency and profitability as key measurement tools. As more and more students are going to post secondary institutions to learn skills that would have been taught on the job a few years ago,or get promotions (and some post-secondary institutions are being created solely to meet this perceived need) many people in positions of influence and decision-making power are beginning to question why students are studying the Humanities - How does reading Shakespeare or Descartes aid me in drawing blood an student once asked me? So we need to be careful when we use terms like 'valuable' and not presuppose that there is agreement on what constitutes something being of value.

  5. Interesting anecdote, Michael.

    I got interested in this side of things mainly through reading i) Derek Bok's Our Underachieving Colleges, and then reading a lot of literature about school improvement to help my wife think about her job. My sense is that the Wagner group is pretty sensitive to the scienc-ey side of this (not so much from his book, but from reading the work of the people he works with in the group).

    John's comment about needing a "No Penalty" clause: One of Wagner's colleagues, Dick Elmore, has developed a set of protocols for mutual observation, developed primarily for principals and managers, but usable by teachers. This is very sensitive stuff in k-12, where merit-pay based on test score growth is really being talked about. In HE, my feeling is that programs analogous to Wagner's have to start out voluntarily, and have to be led i) by professors with tenure who put themselves out there first, and ii) by teaching assistants demanding mentorship and teaching improvement schemes for the sake of becoming better teachers and job market benefits of such. How good practices can be diffused in professions where there's a lot of job security and very entrenched cultures is a mystery...

  6. Longtime lurker, first time commenter...please forgive if this comment ends up a little self-serving, because I'm the functioning director of the faculty center at Michael's university (I don't have the title, just the responsibility).

    I would love to respond more thoughtfully to the descriptions of teaching as craft vs science, and local vs generalizable orthodoxy, but all I can do is nod and say "Yep," because you have said it all!

    Any teaching and learning center would JUMP at the chance to help facilitate a program like this, and would insist that it be completely formative, or "no penalty." (This is the self-serving part of the comment.)

    The barrier is, this kind of thing takes faculty time, lots of it. I estimate 30-40 hours over the course of a term, *per person*, for the most impact. The group has to meet, observe each others' classes more than once and look at other parts of the teaching, analyze the data gathered, reflect on their own classes, change something in the teaching if warranted, and then do it all again. To keep the group from hemming itself in with local norms, someone in the group must have the job of constantly asking: why, how, who, what, if? It's definitely one of those things where what you get out depends on what you put in.

    David, seeing a video of your own teaching is useful. It's very painful. If you tend to use lecture a great deal, you will see all your presentation issues. If you are trying to move away from lecture, you can use video as a rich source of data for what else is going on in the classroom. This works better if you have at least two cameras going.

    Concerning the humanities/sciences discussion....When did teaching and learning become all about consumption? Or was it really always all about that, and it was only rich folk -- like me -- who could afford to sit around and wonder, who ever imagined that learning was about making the world better?

  7. On the Humanities and its value -- maybe this should wait till we write about Not For Profit, but it seems to me that whereas the social sciences, sciences, and engineering and medicine make a contribution to society independently of their teaching function, the humanities doesn't. I'm not saying that our research makes no contribution, but for the most part (some parts of history, philosophy and linguistics excepted) it only contributes to the broader society via the teaching function. This is why I think that thinking hard about how to teach more effectively is so urgent for us (I'd believe that even if I didn't agree with John's comment that there is going to be an onslaught of demands that we justify ourselves, but that does lend urgency to it). Being able to show that we are taking real steps to make serious improvements in our teaching will help us to answer the demands that John rightly expects. I confess that I'd like to see my own discipline in the lead on this.

    Thanks for that vote of confidence Victoria. I agree -- it is really going to take people's time. But 30 hours a semester is 2 hours a week. That's not a HUGE amount of time if people can see that they are really gaining from it, and enjoy themselves. Something else has to give to gain that 2 hours, but that requires faculty to become more reflective about what they really value and want to do. The key, I think, is to make sure that you hit the ground running, so that people can see the value of what they are doing pretty much immediately.

    Just to add a comment about incentives. In some universities (mine, for example) S&E or research funds are quite hard to come by, and quite small sums can induce people who are, anyway, interested, to engage in new activities.


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