Archive for April, 2011

A little fantasy

How cool would it be to have a book club that made this its mission: to study all of these books in the next year?


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I’ve been more and more bothered by  a talk I went to (and thought would cheer me up).  Dear friend and award-winning teacher, Joe Hoyle, started a presentation on teaching excellence this way: “A recent Business Week article gave us an A+ rating on teaching.  What are we doing here at UR that got us an A+?” Then people began to list things like small class size, a commitment to teaching, etc.  One person raised his hand and asked “How did they determine that grade?” and Joe said “many interviews with former students” and then basically waived off the rest and went back to collecting “reasons.”  And then Joe went on to get the people pumped up to keep improving by 5% each year.  And he talked about his rules for being an excellent teacher.  Now, I know Joe and he is truly an excellent teacher.  He engages his students with Socratic method-style teaching.  He cares about every one of them.  He has high standards and he helps them to meet them.  He helps them see the subtleties of accounting, the grey areas and where it matters in real life.  But I am not so sure that came through in this presentation.  Instead, the emphasis was on what seemed more like “classroom management.”  He had lessons drawn from dog obedience training.  It was all about how to have authority, and how to make sure students had clear boundaries. Very old-school.

But there was a huge elephant in that room: what do the students take away, after the semester is over?  Joe asked us what we want our students to say about the class, and some of the guys there were delighted to say “I want them to say ‘Whew,I’m glad that is over!’ ”

But whether students loved or hated the class–how were they changed? What will they remember? What can they do that that they couldn’t do before? What new insights and habits of mind do they carry with them?

How can we even talk about the quality of teaching without talking about the results of the teaching: the change in the students?  And if A+ teaching is basically keeping the students “in their place” and jumping quickly through every hoop, even if the training is well designed so that with repetition etc. they will remember their training for a long time–is this really what we want out of a university education?

With our students, we are hoping for the kinds of transformative educational experiences that will lead to lives of meaning and purpose–at least, that is what we say.  In my classes, I am hoping to help students see truths that will help them develop what Keats called “negative capability.”  I am hoping to create learning environments that are safe but challenging, and where they will strike out on their own to places they (and maybe I) hadn’t considered.  In my classes, we learn together.  And that is why I love community-based learning–real challenges are way messier and way more fruitful than textbooks with answers in the back.

And I suppose that Joe is smarter in some ways as a faculty-developer than I am, starting with an ego stroke.  But here is what I will do instead.  I really believe that we each teach from who we are, and we teach the content that we do for a reason.  So I start by getting to know each individual, and what they are fascinated by, and what they want for their students to learn.  And I don’t believe there is any one perfect way to teach.  But I do believe there is a RIGHT focus: student learning.

So much conversation in the Higher ed admin circles seems to say we are on the verge of really going for it, of making student learning and development the true mission of the university, and of making deep learning, innovative experiences, etc the heart of it all.  But the clear sighted among us say: really? or is it just talk?

I get to make it my mission.  And I get to help people who make it their mission.  Maybe that is enough for now.

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