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Archive for February, 2008

of the last several days, this article appeared in Inside Higher Ed (or if not the universe, at least my pal Libby who alerted me to the article!) Now, I know, most people don’t get excited by articles with “Assessment” in the title. But listen to this:

The problem is not that we don’t value good teaching, as our critics still often charge, but that we often share our culture’s romanticized picture of teaching as a virtuoso performance by soloists, as seen in films like Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, and Freedom Writers. According to this individualist conception of teaching — call it the Great-Teacher Fetish, the counterpart of the Best-Student Fetish — good education simply equals good teaching. This equation is pervasive in current discussions of school reform, where it is taken as a given that the main factor in improving schooling is recruiting more good teachers.

In fact, this way of thinking is a recipe for bad education. According to Richard F. Elmore’s research on primary and secondary education, in failing schools the governing philosophy is often, Find the most talented teachers and liberate them “from the bonds of bureaucracy,” which are often seen as infringements on academic freedom. (In the movies, the great teacher always works her classroom magic against the background of an inept, venal, or corrupt school bureaucracy.) Elmore reports that the pattern of teachers “working in isolated classrooms” is common in unsuccessful schools, where everything depends on the teachers’ individual talents “with little guidance or support from the organizations that surround them.” Conversely, as Elmore argues, successful schools tend to stress cooperation among teachers over individual teaching brilliance, though cooperation itself enhances individual teaching.

(emphasis mine)

I am so relieved that he is articulating well what I have been struggling to put into words! When teachers reflect on their teaching with a focus on student learning, students benefit. Graff is looking primarily at the benefits that come because of creating a more coherent curriculum and of articulating our own goals.

But he may be missing the richest part: when faculty focus on student learning and ask themselves “What did they learn?” and “What can I do that might improve their learning?” And then, when they talk to each other they are creating a culture that says “Teaching is something that we are always learning more about, and helping each other to learn.” Then, you get a good faculty development person in the mix to faciltate communication, gather more information, bring in outside experts, even help with gathering feedback from students… Wow. Imagine what that university would be like! Who wouldn’t want to teach there? Better yet: who wouldn’t want to be a student there?

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The Measure of a Teacher

Almost a month ago now, Tricia wrote a post that has remained on the edges of my thoughts. She says:

I guess it all depends upon the “lens” through which we choose to look at these things. The numbers can be helpful to an extent, but seeing candidates in action is really the most telling piece of evidence we have. I DO know a good teacher when I see one, and so do you.

I think I have been stuck on this one because, in the words of an old college friend “I feel strongly both ways!” On the one hand, it is true that the very things that make for good teaching can be the hardest things to quantify. The things that don’t really matter so much, (like getting forms in on time…or like getting students to memorize facts and then measuring how well they spit them back) are a lot easier to represent in some numerical fashion. So, that hand says that it is stupid to try to measure good teaching.

But the other hand holds some wisdom as well. Clearly there ARE people who make a difference in students lives, who create a spark, who move students from assumptions to questioning to discovery. Yes, there is a difference between gifted teaching and ho hum teaching, and if there is a difference, we should be able to quantify it in some way. In fact, it is crucial that we quantify it in some way, or else we end up saying “Either you ARE a teacher or you AREN”T a teacher” which implies that learning and improving are not part of the process of great teaching. And I don’t believe that is true.

Today I heard a fascinating discussion between 2 nationally recognized, award winning teachers. Hoyle teaches Accounting and Ayers teaches history (when he is not president-ing that is!) I hear from them what I heard from Ken Bain last spring: great teachers capture the attention of their students, get them invested in big questions (or puzzles, as Joe likes to say) and then coach, question, and cheerlead as the students learn.

What I have learned in my work in faculty development is: there are ways to do this, techniques. Just having techniques is not enough, but just having passion and no techniques is not so effective either. Most great teachers I know have horror stories of their first times teaching. Part of what makes them great is they didn’t give up, or decide “well, that’s good enough.” Some teachers go out and find information on their own (dare I say this tends to be the “traditional masculine model?”) I think both Ayers and Hoyle described something like that, saying they thought about their teaching and their students’ learning, and then consciously made changes, searching for new strategies. Perhaps what I am tuned into was that my search for a better way to teach led me to a group (for me it was the National Writing Project) and to a community of teachers who cared deeply about learning.
In higher ed, we haven’t done such a great job making the academy friendly for females, and most of the time what I hear people say is “yes, we need more flexible tracks to tenure and a day care center on campus.” Agreed. But I also think we need to support teaching in a more community-oriented way if we want to support the growth of teachers who are more suited to a community approach. Some of those people will also be men! The point is that we teach the way we were taught until we experience something different. When we talk to other teachers and read about other ways to teach, and go to conferences and see different methods, we can get to the style which will work for us. But I also believe that we must continually be about this process. (Hoyle likes to say “trying to improve every semester by 5%, but he is an accountant : ) ) And getting conversations going on campus that will help people find new ways and reach their 5% is not easy! And nothing makes it more threatening to talk about your struggles than the idea that great teachers are born, not made. If that is the case, then admitting you want to improve your teaching is the same as saying you are a failure and always will be.

So I don’t disagree with Tricia, but I fear a slippery slope, one which I think has held back educators for a long time.

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At the last minute, I signed up to attend Bryan Alexander’s pre-conference workshop. Looking back on my time at ELI this year, I have to say that I couldn’t possibly have gotten off to a better start. Why? It was such fun. We played with different ways to tell stories, and one picture set off an interesting story that took on a life of its own, with people not even assigned to our group jumping in to play.
(And, I heard a great quote about what a story should do: “Make em cry, make em laugh, make em wait.” Wilkie Collins)

Amazing conversations grew out of that session. Brian Lamb made me think about the conflict between inclusive community and “individual excellence.” And I am still thinking about that. Notes for another day…

I knew the session on Fear 2.0 was going to be amazing and it was. The presentations were the more affecting for being powerful digital stories in their own rights. What a blessedly long way we have come from the Death by Power Point model of sessions. Somehow talking about the fact that there are lots of different kinds of fear in the academy made me feel less afraid of my own fears. I wanted to talk to people about “imposter syndrome” but we ran out of time.

I convened a session for my friends from VCU that was really interesting, but not for the obvious reasons. They presented the research their faculty learning community did on technology adoption by students and professors. The results were interesting, particulary the info on HOW people like to learn new technologies, and the fact that less than 60% of students expected to use the internet in the classroom–and fewer than that say they WANT to use it in the classroom! But the really interesting thing to me was the way this FLC worked together to implement this large scale project. Many conversations errupted at this conference about “faculty development” and for the first time I saw a mass of people from POD there saying: hey! there is a literature about this and a professional group rich with knowledge we need, and it is POD.
VCU and Jeff Nugent are really on to something here that has to do with deep learning for faculty, and they learned it from Milt Cox and POD (see Jeff’s discussion of FLC’s on his new blog). I’m now on a personal mission to find ways to mold faculty learning communities at UR.

I am thinking still of that first workshop, though, and how much fun it was, and how, in that relaxed atmosphere I was both able to use new tools and talk about the big ideas, and make new friends, all at the same time. And it was “just a workshop.” Could it be that a little fun and creative play goes a long way in combatting the dreaded fear we were hearing about?

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