Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks OR Reminding New Dogs Old Tricks are No Good: Striving for Quality in Higher Ed

I have a past that I once considered dark. I was embarrassed to admit to any new friends I made that I had once been a hardcore gamer. For about 3 years during my undergraduate years (a decade ago), mostly summers and over holiday breaks when I wasn’t working, I spent my time plugged into World of Warcraft (WoW)… not casually playing–grinding for resources, completing quests, raiding, and participating in team PvP combat. It was never dull! I had multiple top-level characters-my favorites were a human warlock and a Draenai priest, that I played with friends in real life and with friends I had met online. I was embarrassed to talk about my gaming past because of the reactions I would get from people. If I wasn’t getting a blank, yet horrified stare, the person I was talking to might be laughing or snickering at me for my juvenile, time-wasting hobby.

But I never saw it as a waste of time. I learned a lot in those games about social interaction, team work, planning, communication, and problem solving that I don’t think I would have had an equivalent opportunity to experience in real life. Especially in an age where communication and learning is increasingly happening online and in the digital realm, I believe it is increasingly important that we all practice our skills so that we are ready to engage with other people/learners whom we might not be working with face-to-face.

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in “A New Culture of Learning” talk about how gaming is a highly social activity that can bring together and engage multiple generations while also allowing the players to direct themselves in the play. I think this is an insightful way to look at WoW and other games like it. It is a simulation of a fantasy world, sure–but that doesn’t make the learning outcomes any less real or valuable.

Jumping into a “traditional” classroom, we think of a teacher in front of a class full of students and what are they doing? Well, they might be doing something out-of-the-box that’s fun and engaging, but more than likely, they’re doing the same thing we teachers have always been doing–they’re lecturing their class to death and they’re wondering “what is it about the students these days?

News flash: it’s not the students. It’s you. It’s me. It’s us. It’s educators who have been so focused on career development/their own learning/whatever, you name it–that they’ve forgotten what it was like to be a student having to struggle through another exhausting lecture-based class.

Just last week, I had to give a presentation to a class that I’m the Research Assistant for and since I was in a relative hurry and the information wasn’t exactly “interesting” per se, I created a basic PowerPoint to deliver the information and at first, was satisfied with my work/preparation. During the 20 minute presentation, though, I discovered quickly that I had made a mistake. I was the only one that talked. No one really asked any questions. I was trying hard not to read the slides, but found myself stumbling through the information.  I was probably 4 minutes into it when I noticed I “lost” my first student, and I was only half way through before one of the professors on record walked out because what I was doing/delivering was clearly a waste of his time. In retrospect, especially after the readings this week, I realize that I would have done them a better service to send the class an email with links to the websites where I pulled the information from and then spent that same 20 minutes discussing the case studies rather than boring everyone to death with policy discussion.

The big question I’ve been asking myself since then is: “How am I going to do it better next time?” and “What am I going to do differently?” From Jean Lacoste’s Teaching Innovation Statement, I pulled this quote because it really resonated with me: “I want to reach every single student in the class. I want each student to feel important, and I want each to know I
care about his or her education.”  And it’s true. I really do care about each and every one of my students. I want them to get the most out of our time together, yet when given the opportunity to really help them, I feel like I set myself up for failure by following the same model for classroom interactions every week. (But that’s why I’m in this course now–so that I can learn to be better. One of my personal mantras is “Know Better, Do Better” and pedagogy is no exception. I decided to go into education because I LOVE learning, yet I realize that I don’t know all that much about teaching, yet.

I am going to wrap this blog post with an excerpt from the Robert Talbert reading:

“Notice also that I do not count whether a lecture is inspiring or not. No doubt many lectures are inspiring, but being inspired and being taught are not the same thing, and just having one’s thoughts provoked doesn’t mean that one has interacted with the lecturer in any real way.”

Robert Talbert “Four things lecture is good for” (2012)

As I look to the future and imagine opportunities where I will be able to make a difference to my students, I will start by not “teaching” with the same stale lecture and exhausting PowerPoint that I have elected to use in the past. These methods are outdated by contemporary standards, and we owe it to our students to do a better job at meeting their educational, social, and creative needs. There are so many different innovative, exciting, and engaging examples of how educators are out there today, providing a completely new and inspiring educational experience.

So how will I be different in the future? Well, I’m going to start by slowing down a little bit. I’m going to slow down and start paying closer attention to the things that inspire me and capture my attention–and then I’m going to study those methods. I’m going to be mindful about my own learning experiences and see if there are things from my past that I can draw on in order to grow into a better version of myself (who is actually an amazing educator!) I will be thoughtful and thorough when it comes to my course material because I owe it to my students to provide them the best education that I possibly can–and that if they’re going to show up ready to be taught, then I am certainly going to meet them on their terms.



  • Amy Hermundstad says:

    Thanks for your post! I really enjoyed reading it. You bring up some really interesting points about lectures and games and learning these days. And I love that you are going to be reflecting on your own experiences to improve your teaching! One thing that I think is important for educators to keep in mind when designing learning experiences is what they want the student to get out of the experience. There may be situations where games help students learn something and there may be situations where a discussion or lecture may be more beneficial. Being intentional is so important. I don’t think we as educators should lecture just because that is what has been done before. Alternatively, I don’t think we should use games just because we can. There are so many different ways to learn. It may be beneficial to use lectures, games, discussions, videos, or any combination of the different strategies out there depending on the situation. I think you are asking some great questions and I am excited to continue these discussions!

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Thanks Amy. I have been asking myself a lot lately what can I do to be better? The last year has been such a transformation for me–moving up here to study at VT has changed my life! I am eager to see where I’ll be after another year of studies… classes like this one are really critical to my development as an educator. Like you, I am excited about these discussions. I am looking forward to seeing just how deep the rabbit hole goes!

  • Nicole Arnold says:

    Sara – Thank you for being real and vulnerable in this post. I loved it! It is interesting to hear things from the side of someone that once considered themselves to be a “gamer.” If I’m being honest, I’m probably one of the individuals that you wrote about that just really didn’t understand. However, through the readings and videos we’ve been provided with, in addition to the discussions taking place in the classroom, I’m beginning to see the many positive facets of video games. This is why I enjoy this class so much; it genuinely does have the ability to change perceptions or at least be able to assist students in acknowledging where someone else is coming from whether or not feel they feel the same.

    Within the next couple of weeks I will teach my first lecture for the Introduction to Food Science class, as the professor will be out on travel. Your experience is a good reminder that we don’t have to follow suit with what has always been done within a course – and that it is ok for things not to go perfectly. As someone that is a planner and a bit of a perfectionist, it helps me to hear about others’ stories in the since that teaching will probably never go completely as planned. That is one of the reasons why it can be so complex. The important thing is that we learn from our mistakes and with a trial and error mindset, we try to do things better next time. It is almost terrifying to me that what works for one set of students may not work for another group, even when teaching the same exact course. I’m trying to be more ok with the whole idea of teaching/trying something, then evaluating – then doing this all over again the next class period.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Thanks Nicole for your comment. You make a good point about the importance of learning from mistakes. I have every intention to DO BETTER next time. My students deserve it! I feel like we have to start somewhere and it’s important to remember that we are just getting started, so there will be a learning curve while we discover ourselves as educators and figure out how to deploy these best practices in the classroom. The reason why I chose Tech over other programs is because of the reputation for educating educators–and I fully intend to absorb all I can like a sponge! Good luck in your first lecture. You’ll do great! Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do!!

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