Teaching as Self-discovery

One of my favorite teachers told me years ago that teaching was a chance for you to reinforce material you have come across before, to solidify previous knowledge, to assign readings that you yourself have wanted to read. This way, the teacher is understood as a student who learns alongside his or her students. Teaching was thus a process of self-learning, self-discovery. Does this seem counter-intuitive? Are we not supposed to “know” our material before teaching it? Well, yes and no, it seems. We “know” enough to garner the respect of our students, that they acknowledge that the teacher knows more than them. But we certainly don’t know our disciplines as much as we feel we aught to, thus making sense of Einstein’s pithy statement “The more we know, the less we know”.

Sarah Deel’s “Finding my Teaching Voice” was a poignant personal narrative of her own journey towards finding her own voice as a teacher. She ultimately discovers that by discovering her ‘teaching voice’ she herself was ‘liberated’. This was not the feeling I had teaching for the first time at VTech. I recently taught my first undergraduate course last week. I have spent the semester watching other teachers and taking mental notes on where they are succeeding and where I need to do better. Yet when the moment came, I found myself giving a 1 hr and 15 minute powerpoint presentation — with an 11 minute movie clip — because giving presentations was what I knew as a student. It was where “my voice was”; but I didn’t feel liberated as Deel did, I felt ‘stuck’ in the mode of presentation. I later realized that while I did a reasonably good job at asking the students questions and getting them to respond, I did not really “teach” the material; I simply gave a presentation of the material. The next class, I watched how the professor “taught” the class. She didn’t speak for more than 15 minutes, breaking up the class into group discussions, journal entries and a debate. She taught, I presented; and she did it with a lot less stress! Fowler’s advice rang true and clear “Teaching is not all about the teacher; that is, teaching is not all about you”. Instead, the professor was what Fowler calls a “guide” and “facilitator”.

The professor who watched me later said that I shouldn’t beat myself up too much, that I did very good for my first time, and that “you looked very comfortable up there! If you have managed to get that out of the way already, you are on a great start”. While I was happy to hear positive reinforcement from the professor, I still felt deficient in something. But one thing rang true: I had to be myself. Teaching forces you to open up and take a risk in being yourself. There is almost no other way to do it. You figure it out very quickly in front of your students.

One important nugget I took from Deel regarding successful teachers:

“They [the teachers] explained their strategies to their students. The context of the particular classroom was very important; since the students in each class understood their teacher’s philosophy and evaluation style, they were able to learn from the teacher’s responses to their writing.”

Quickly: Fowler’s “Authentic Teaching Self” was remarkably useful and terse. This type of nuts and bolts approach to providing quick advice to aspiring teachers works like an effective tool-kit that repairs minor damages. I particularly appreciated the “physical aspects” section where teachers are advised to ‘warm up’ their body and mind prior to teaching. I do precisely the types of strategies she mentioned in order to remove nerves. It actually works! Warming up the vocal box is useful too.

There are a lot of different ideas floating in this piece. Apologies for the obvious disorientation in this post. I’d appreciate thoughts/reflections on something/anything here.

The colossal divide between grades and learning: A college experience

Like most freshman entering college, I did not know what I wanted to study. But to play my cards safely, I went ahead and completed required courses for pre-med “just incase” I still did not know what to do upon graduation. BIG MISTAKE! I learned a lot about myself and other friends who were on the pre-med path, with one general constant: by focusing almost entirely on their grades, they hindered their learning capacity. It wasn’t about ‘learning’ biology yet, they maintained. It was only about getting into medical school, where all the “book theory” in the first two years still don’t prepare you for anything except other exams. It was only during rotations in 3rd/4th year medical school, where you visit patients and take a hand-on approach where medical learning begins. Anyone who has a friend in medical school can attest to this narrative (what a waste of time, right? except they got $$$….so sad these are our doctors!)

My roommate was an interesting case-and-point. He simply knew how to make an A, no matter the content, material or structure of the class (Organic Chem, German film, econ, social theory, all A’s!). One time I asked him how he did it. I knew he worked hard, but he did not strike me as someone particularly marked with high acumen. Aside from working hard, re-writing his homework, taking meticulous notes, etc, he made an effort to visit professors and compliment them. “Do this a few times a semester” he advised, “and you will have an A”.

WHAT?!

I DID NOT JUST HEAR THAT…(or perhaps I was thinking, “Gee, why didn’t you tell me this earlier dude?”)

My roommate uncovered the subjective element in grading, the human element, that I had so easily forgotten due to my unconscious subservience as a student towards my mythic-god like professors. Don’t get me wrong, he worked really hard. But it was clear to me that he tapped into a resource that pushed him above the rest of us.

I’m certain he doesn’t recall or care much about what he learned in college, but for me, it has been a recurrent nightmare. All those pre-med courses could have been better spent in courses I actually cared about. Luckily, my senior year I met a sociology professor who got me up to speed with “learning”, writing and arguing a cohesive paper, and most importantly, to get me to NOT CARE ABOUT THE GRADE. I would add that this professor was notorious on campus for (1) giving too much reading similar to graduate level courses and (2) never giving an A to a student (there have been rumors that a select few received 3.7 over his 20+ year career teaching).

The words of Dan Pink and Alfie Kohn really struck a cord with me. Replacing grades with narrative assessments has seemed to have a fairly positive effect, especially given the fact that elementary and middle school grades are not considered for college applications. I have been scared from the learning v grading divide. It is a visceral experience that has essentially made me no longer care about grading and only towards learning. Some of my most memorable interactions with people have been those who have learned a skill or language without schooling. When asked how they did so, the reply was usually something like “The school called life taught me!” Somethings we simply learn with time, and adolescents going through high school and college already have so much on their plates. How can we provide narrative reports to students/parents with administrative support from universities? The quality of Letters of Recommendation remain the strongest reason for acceptance into universities. Why not make this a practice for grading?

I’m sure many of you have been on the unfortunate side of the learning/grading divide as well. Comments please!

Robinson, Wesch and the politics of ‘risk taking’ as a teacher.

The teachers that have made the greatest impression on me and my direction of study have been those who learn alongside us students. The power-directing, control orienting, “look at me up here” teachers are usually the type we fail to recall much, perhaps with some exception.

Ken Robinson and Michael Wesch echo this sentiment through their respective attitudes on the dearth of real learning. I took to heart Michael Wesch notion of the ‘significance problem’ and watched his disheartening video “A Vision of Students Today”, showing us the all-to-often harsh reality of the contemporary student’s attitude towards learning in universities. Both Robinson and Wesch are asking us to put purpose, teleologically driven mindsets back into classroom management and teaching.

Wesch, for example, takes Mashal McLuhan’s notion of the “medium is the message” as a means to reify learning instead of simply conveying information. One way to assess the success of this so called “Simulation Method” is to see the quality of students questions. Since Wesch is not “teaching” in the traditional sense mentioned above, he describes his style as akin to a type of “anti-teaching”. He states, “I am in the wonderful but awkward position of not knowing exactly what I am doing but blissfully learning along the way [with his students]. My job becomes less about teaching and more about encouraging students to join me on their quest” (last page, second to last paragraph). Thus, by making ourselves a student alongside our students, stating from the first class that “I too am learning alongside you!” will create an environment of humility towards knowledge and life that is necessary for learning. And everyone learns, even if they do not go to school.

Wesch is willing to take the risks that Robinson lays out in his speech to instill a sense of curiosity and learning about “how the world works”. Would we be willing to take such risks as teachers, fearing student responses, the position of our tenure-ship, inter-departmental politics, funding, and a university administration that seems to perpetuate the dullness of learning? There are simply too many political impediments that make such risks possible. Just as students want to get credit and get out, university administration seem to believe the same. Is a revolution in teaching, thus, necessary from the ground-up or top-down? Help me think this through!