Reinventing the hamster wheel: The new frontier of teaching.

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As I look ahead to the syllabus assignment for GRAD 5114, I am pondering my current teaching practices and whether they are really “enough.” I’ve touched on my teaching style before; I sometimes feel as I am doing my duty because I have moved beyond a pure lecture-and-multiple-choice exam format, incorporating videos and fun application assignments, pulling contemporary examples from the media and the world around us. This week’s readings got me thinking, though, about whether I have accidentally (that is, despite my best efforts) sunk into a routine of my own. After all, students don’t always seem to resonate with my examples, and sometimes my activities turn into generic “think of a situation in your life when [insert principle here]”-style discussions. Until this week, I was at a loss as to how I could improve this.

I was particularly drawn to Carnes’ “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire.” The students and teachers he describes are doing things that are just cool, like creating strategy games based on real historical events. These are activities that would make me look forward to going to class. I reflected back on some of the activities I thought were cool once upon a time. For example, in one class, I asked students to write a case study of a movie character suspected of having a mental illness, and to rate the accuracy of the film’s portrayal. Wouldn’t it have been more fun for students to tape their own versions of the film’s trailer in order to show what an authentic portrayal would look like? Another example that comes to mind is the project where students were asked to use operant conditioning to solve a “real-world” problem that affects VT undergrads. But why didn’t I ask them to try out their proposals, rather than just write and present them? Surely there would be lots of opportunities to use social media to get the word out about their ideas. Did I think they would complain about the effort? Would it just have been too difficult for me to grade? It seems like the potential hurdles to be confronted in this process might be worth the potential benefits.

I have to ask one question, though – where is the incentive for designers and coding gurus to develop these types of activities? Must the burden of developing and enacting these activities and tools fall squarely on the shoulders of teachers, or can educators and engineers collaborate more effectively and infuse these hands-on activities into curricula? After all, I have to blame part of my problem on an apparent lack of creativity, or perhaps more specifically, the experience of having reached the asymptote of my creative skills (at least until I get more coffee and a few days of sunny vacation). I think that part of the reason why innovation has stalled in education is that creative ideas like this take money, and they aren’t always rewarded, especially when a big grant with other clear and important implications is competing for attention and funding. I have hope, though, that eventually the tide will turn, once word about these exciting developments and programs and their potential positive effects on learning gets out.

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And to my classmates who are also grappling with their definition of what a “good teacher” is and whether or not they are one, I say this – someone once told me that if you care enough to question your teaching abilities, you’re already doing better than most of the other teachers anyway. So take heart, and press on.

4 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy

4 Responses to Reinventing the hamster wheel: The new frontier of teaching.

  1. annehilborn

    I really appreciated you talking about how to revamp your assignments and exercises. I find concrete ideas really useful for me to start thinking of my own, especially when it comes to digital learning.
    One of the reasons I likes the videos we watched is because they show how to put digital learning into action instead of the vague guidelines we tend to get from articles. Your examples of tweaking assignments in ways that do not necessarily involve huge investments in technology were helpful, thanks!

  2. Abi Tyson

    It’s so easy to fall into the pessimism of ‘well no other teachers are going to make a change anyway because it’s too much work/money/etc.’. I find myself asking that question all the time. I’m inspired, though, by people like you who are actively trying to advance and develop their curricula to be more effective and engaging. Thanks for the tips and encouragement!

  3. Margaret Carneal

    It is challenging to come up with new ways to get through to students. So challenging that it can be down right exhausting. Also with overwhelming teaching loads, who has the time, even if you do have the motivation. I too am motivated to overhaul courses and introduce fun ways to explore content, but there is a huge lack of resources dedicated into such endeavors. Tweaks see all that are possible without resources of time or funding. Even summer funding to overhaul a course is a pittance compared to what is feasible. So you strive to be creative instead, great, but then there is the time resource compromise. You are right, just acknowledging that you have further to go in your course is a good start. If each year it gets a little better, you are a good teacher. Don’t stress too much, because as soon as you feel you have it nearly perfected, they will assign someone else to that class or implement a new learning management system, or something that will suck your time away form real course development. I apologist for being such a downer, but with all this idealist talk I really do appreciate your realism and I am consoled by our common misery. Thank you for posting.

  4. Jyotsana Sharma

    Amanda you bring some crucial questions and observations that every educator should be asking themselves, their colleagues, and their students. I also agree that there is little or no motivation, inspiration or incentive to develop courses/syllabi/lessons that are innovative from external sources. So we have to answer the questions you pose to ourselves and dig deep on why we think these strategies would be useful.

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