Time to Put a Bow on it

Since my arrival at Tech, I have experienced more learning and exposure to new ideas than perhaps I have in my entire education to date. I came here primarily for two reasons: the first, because I was interested the Landscape Architecture program because I could pursue an Architecture & Design Research PhD (1 of 5 offered in the U.S.) and second, because the Graduate School offered a Transformative Graduate Education Experience that was promised to  be unlike anything I had encountered before.  So far, I have not been disappointed.

Over the past semester, I have tried to absorb as much as I could from Contemporary Pedagogy–from the instructor, the GTAs, our assignments, and my peers. One of the things I like best about courses like this from the Graduate School is that I am enrolled alongside scholars from disciplines all over the university, which provides the course with rich diversity, methods, and experience. I am here because I am passionate about education and because I want to make a difference in the world. Over the years, there have been teachers in my life that have inspired me, challenged me, and helped me grow as a scholar and an individual–and I want to be like them. It has been my goal to enter higher education and participate in the system that saved me from squandering my own potential.  Equipped with new ideas and techniques for teaching and learning, I am well on my way to becoming the face of the future professoriate.

After my time in Contemporary Pedagogy, I have a few ideas I’d like to share. A takeaway message for anyone who might be curious about taking a leap into the Graduate School offerings.

First, understand that teaching ≠ lecture. 

Granted, there is a time and a place for lecture, but we can’t expect to really push our students to learn how to apply course content if we treat students in class as dumping receptacles for Power Point slides. As educators, we need to think about how we present content and what that means for student learning. If we know that students learn better by doing, then why do we wait until their internship-semester or post-graduation for them to get any practical experience?

I took a course this semester that consisted of a blend of lecturing and workshops. Prior to each class, the students were expected to read the material so they could come to class engaged, and then the professor proceeded to lecture from Power Point slides the entire time, save when he would pause to ask if anyone had questions. After we had gotten into the material a bit, we started having workshops at least once per week where we would be given a packet that detailed what the workshop was about and then we would break off in to groups to work on completing the assignment. These workshops involved working through the same problems that practitioners, planners, and policy makers have to in order to make their decisions. Homeworks in this class were usually only a few questions long, but involved several steps and often required us to apply what we learned in the workshop. At first, I was pretty disappointed with this class because I thought we were going to spend 1.5 hrs twice a week being read to off of Power Point, but in the end, we did learn skills that can be applied in the work force immediately.

Understand when Contemporary Methods are Appropriate

Sure, there has been great backlash against the traditional lecture model in recent years, but it still does have its place in academia. As educators, we should be thinking about alternative ways of instruction to help students get the most out of their learning experiences. Between the Face-to-Face vs Online or Hybrid Classroom Design, Flipped Classrooms, Think-Pair-Share, Networked Learning, Problem Based Learning, Case Studies, Jig-Saw, and Learning by Doing (to name a few) there are many ways to engage a classroom. I would encourage educators to try new methods and to not be discouraged if they don’t work at first.  Conversely, there may be times when it is not appropriate to utilize one of these methods; maybe there are cases where a traditional lecture fits the lesson best.

Spend time designing your Syllabus

Instead of letting it serve as general catchall for class policy and a calendar listing the course objectives throughout the semester, why not let it be a tool to help improve your teaching? If worded well, it can be used to set the tone of for your class and help your students understand what your expectations are. The syllabus also provides an opportunity to introduce your students to your philosophy and pedagogy.

It can serve as a framework for everything you do in your classroom throughout the semester–whether it is 2 pages or 12 pages long, as long as it is thoughtfully crafted, it has the potential to be very powerful.

Think about your role as the Teacher

Coming up, I thought teachers knew everything. Pursuing my own education has revealed that in fact, teachers don’t know everything, and good teachers acknowledge that they don’t, but they know how to ask questions and where to look for answers.  The best teachers are understanding, have empathy, are open to new possibilities, and have the ability to see where their students have shortcomings and adapt their teaching methods. They treat their students equitably and take care to tailor instruction or approach to meet the needs of each student.

In the class this semester, we have thought long and hard about what it means to be a teacher. We have been shown methods that help us to be more like a facilitator, coach, or guide, than the all-knowing fixture at the front of the classroom that most of us might identify as teacher. Recognizing that we are also learners in the classroom is a first step towards a new kind of teaching and learning experience. Being able to admit freely when you don’t know something is an indicator of strength; it shows students that there is no perfect knowledge, that we all have room to grow.

Innovation Might Require Discomfort

In the real world, we work on project teams composed of different personalities, experts, and people that might have different goals altogether. Learning how to work with others, to reach a compromise, to reach consensus, and to gracefully disagree and engage in discussion is the mark of a mature thinker. We know that learning is not always the most comfortable activity a person can engage in, but that discomfort helps us to see our weaknesses and where we could do better.

It’s true, there might be a truly remarkable thinker and scholar out there who can develop their own ideas without the help of others–but I find it hard to believe that this is the case the majority of the time.

I believe it is important to recognize that it is rare for a single person to strike gold on a perfect new idea all by themselves–that successful design comes through collaboration and exposure to others. The problems of today are sticky and complex; they require a multi-pronged approach that considers expert areas across several disciplines.

So it may not be easy to be an innovator, but it’s well worth the effort. We grow as human beings from moments of discomfort and we shouldn’t shy away from engaging in tough exercises of critical thinking.


So what of the future?

If there was something I could share with my future students, it would be this: learning with me will provide an experience unlike any other you have ever had before. A class with me will be so much more than a semester full of lectures paired with the expectation that you take notes, a midterm, a final, a project, and BAM! You earn a grade. You’re done. A class with me will be a fuzzy blend of what you expect based on past experience and what you will be exposed to in an innovative, exciting learning environment.

A class with me wouldn’t be fulfilling its purpose if it wasn’t helping you learn how to think. What kind of information or data do you need to get your hands on to begin to address the the problem? Where do you find this information? Once you have it, how will you use it? These are all questions I will ask you to think about and answer for yourselves. And you will be required to think–which can be a little uncomfortable if you have not had much practice doing this in school.

I don’t want to put down your educational experience to date; on the contrary, I applaud your resilience and determination to continue your education. Your life experience has helped make you who you are and there is no doubt that you have had many many valuable learning experiences in both contemporary and traditional classrooms.

I recognize that I am not a fully formed person yet. I don’t know everything. But, I’m curious and as a lifelong learner, I am cognizant that there will always be things that I don’t know–and yet, much that I do! In my classroom, we are learning together. I rely on the fresh eyes of my students to help me continuously reevaluate whether my approaches and/or courses are providing skills that are useful.

Everyone has had a different background and experience, and thus, each individual in the classroom has a unique set of skills and qualities they bring with them. I’m here to hear your story, I’m here to help you achieve your goals.

I want my students to embrace learning with a positive attitude. I expect my students to try, to explore new ideas, and to never forget that failure does not mean that learning is over. Give yourself permission to walk your own path and you will be successful.

Featured Image from Pixabay


  • emma says:

    “If there was something I could share with my future students, it would be this: learning with me will provide an experience unlike any other you have ever had before.” That’s great! I think I’ve been embodying this philosophy without realizing it.

    The various techniques we’ve learned in this class, like classroom flipping, problem-based learning, and so on, can all facilitate a unique experience. They can assure students that class is something to look forward to, that might surprise them and draw out curiosities they didn’t even know they had — that’s what education should do, right? But whatever methods we use, I think the important thing is to affirm the specialness and importance of both the course content and the classroom. In this networked age, why should students come to class rather than using Khan Academy (or cheating from classmate notes)?

    The in-person experience is important. Give them something they’ve never had before, and might never have again…

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Thanks Emma, for your comment. Its great to hear you connected with what I was trying to articulate about giving students a meaningful experience in the classroom. You’re so right–why would anyone care about coming to a face-to-face if they thought they could get the same instruction online? There are different paths out there for all students, but the ones who come to see us will get something unique. I think it’s our job to serve our students as best we are able. I agree with you about the importance of the course content and the physical classroom. The material and space have everything to do with creating a stimulating environment.

  • Amy Hermundstad says:

    Sara – Thank you for sharing this fantastic reflection on the course! I will be excited to hear how you incorporate various aspects of this class as well as experiences in your own education to create unique experiences and learning environments for students.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Hi Amy, thank you for your feedback. It is good to get a little bit of validation from the instructors especially at the end of a course. It was a great experience this semester. I learned so many methods and techniques and theories on teaching. I can’t wait to connect with students in new ways in the future.

  • It’s always impressive to see reactions to a course when it is winding down. Your post encapsulates most of the major themes we discussed as a class, or engaged in with tangibles. After reading your post, and doing some inner musing myself, I think it is interesting to see how each of our peers measure the take-aways from the the course. I’m a firm believer in innovation in the classroom, but not when it comes at the expense of why we students come to the classroom. I agree that as a student, I thought the professor/instructor knew it all, and now that I’m transitioning into that role and into the realization that I clearly DO NOT know it all. It’s about coming to grips with that and putting forth what’s best for the students and their futures.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Thanks Jason, I appreciate your feedback. I like that you bring up innovation in the classroom. It was a topic I really wanted to write about for this post, but I felt like I was pushing the limit for my blog post being overdue so I left it out. I like what you said about believing in innovation, but not at the expense of the other reasons why it’s important for students to attend class. This is a valuable distinction. I loved the readings about teaching innovation this week. I don’t know that any one teacher can “teach” innovation to a student in a single-classroom-experience, because I believe it is a skill that takes a long time to develop (with practice, like any other hard skill). But, the more students are exposed to the concept and the conditions for developing the thinking process required for innovation, the better off they will be in the long run. Eventually, they won’t need teachers to show the way because they will know how to do it themselves. As a teacher, I see part of the job description as helping students develop this skill by nurturing their ability to think critically and develop their unique approaches by creating environments that encourage thinking and new ideas.

  • Zhanyu (Grace) says:

    Hi Sara, thank you for sharing! I enjoyed reading your takeaways from this course, and it’s good to see you being so optimistic about bring innovation to the classroom. I’m still trying to figure out how I can implement some of the techniques for teaching engineering classes; perhaps traditional methods aren’t so bad…it’s really up to us to determine what might work best. This week’s readings, along with Miguel Andre’s and Ethan’s posts, also got me thinking about student character development. It seems we have some more work to do in fostering not only critical and creative thinking but also empathy and emotional intelligence. Part of it is what you mentioned about being able to gracefully agree/disagree. Again, great post!

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Thanks Grace for reading this week. I haven’t gotten to Miguel Andres’ or Ethan’s posts, but now I am going to seek them out. You are quite right about the development of empathy and emotional intelligence. The BIG lesson from school we tend to forget about is the one about learning how to be a good person. Thanks for bringing up the point. It’s arguably the most important think we can help our students with.

  • Julin says:

    Hi Sara, you have a great dot-connecting post. I hope I have done this as well, but I ran out of time after finishing this week’s reading list. I am happy for you for recognizing what you are as a lifetime learner and being passionate to try out new teaching techniques.

    I agree with you that the majority of people make great things happen with others. Similar to the idea that even the best performers in each field can benefit a lot from fresh eyes. How come many people do not realize that using a coaching or interactions with others on work are beneficial resources for everyone? Maybe people are too familiar with coaching as an occupation that they can not get inspired by the mechanism of coaching and interaction. There are always new things out of what we think we know well. It will be a long but fun journey!

  • A. Nelson says:

    Thanks so much for these reflections, Sara! I really appreciate how you’ve taken some of the key concepts from GRAD 5114 and woven them into a teaching praxis that is uniquely yours. It will stand you in good stead as you move forward in your career. Here’s to a genuinely transformative TGE!

  • Sneha Upadhyaya says:

    Great reflections, Sara! “Thinking about your role as a teacher” is something that every educator should be aware of and understand well. The role of teacher is not just to give lectures and transfer knowledge but also care about the growth and long term success of a student. By taking the GEDI course, I think many of us have realized what our roles should be as future educators and that I believe, is one of the most important takeaways from the course.

  • Anurag says:

    Thank you for your detailed reflection on this class. I have saved your post to refer to when I prepare to teach a class in the future.

  • alexpfp17 says:

    Well said. It seems like the entire PhD experience is an exercise in discomfort. But you’re right, without leaving our comfort zones we’ll never get away from the outdated conventions of pedagogy.

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