Connecting the Dots

This semester has really been an eye opening one for me. To be completely honest, one of the main drivers in taking some of these GRAD courses has been to give me a competitive edge when applying for jobs.  However, I have really learned a lot in this course especially about myself and my own assumptions about teaching and pedagogical practice.  I find myself sort of straddling a line when it comes to my thoughts and opinions on the future of teaching and my own personal teaching philosophy.  One of the things I am most proud of is that even before taking these courses, I have always found myself questioning how I could improve (in my case) veterinary medical education.  As discussed in the readings for this week by Palmer and others, I see so many students only concerned about the grade, lacking empathy, and forgetting that there are real lives and real patients on the other end of all this.  However, I also find parts of me still deeply rooted in many traditional ways of thinking.  Even though I can see the shortcomings, I still feel that many of the traditional ways of teaching the –ologies (physiology, neurology, nephrology, etc.) by just rote memorization of facts may still be a necessary part of the curriculum.  Thankfully, I don’t think anyone has ALL the right answers and it is going to take some pushing and pulling from both sides (traditional and contemporary) to work together to find better alternatives.

Narrative learning

The readings from this week reflected the need for students to experience learning as opposed to being given knowledge such as in the banking model as discussed in Paulo Freire’s, Chapter 2 from Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I definitely understand the need to create students that are constantly questioning information and not just receptacles with which to fill, however, I feel like somewhere there needs to a “baseline” of facts that we all take at face value (at least initially) in order for us to later build our narrative and critical thinking.  Moreover, there seem to be different kinds of questions we can ask.  For example, in young children, the questions we can ask involve getting them curious about words, numbers, nature, etc. so that they learn to not necessarily question what they learn but ask questions to learn.  Whereas in older students (high school/college), these questions may be better spent questioning what they learned and from where the information came.  This is why I really like the idea of “narrative learning”.  This reflects teaching/learning as more of a facilitated discussion led by a “teacher” but participated in by all.  This is opposed to the “lecturing at” situation or the situation where students to learn to ask questions but have no basis on which to ask their questions.

Just be yourself . . .

I really enjoyed all the readings from this week, particularly Sarah Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” and Shelli Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills”. Both discuss the idea that though we are all interested in improving the current system, there is no “one way” to teach. I especially liked the reading by Sarah Deel as it reflects the thought processes through which I would assume a lot of people interested in being good teachers go. And the ultimate conclusions were that the best teachers bring their true selves into their teaching. I think this is an interesting point. I myself sort of fell into teaching. It was never something I thought of myself doing. However, during my residency, I was thrown into teaching some didactic lectures and labs. I had no idea what I was doing but decided the best way to deal with the situation was to be completely honest with my students. I was honest about myself (I too am pretty uncool and not interested in making any great sacrifices to change that) and what I knew and didn’t know. I ended up receiving some great accolades from students and even won a teaching award while there. Though I am learning and continue to learn new ways to improve my teaching style, I think my abilities to be honest are a great foundation. Like Deel, the more “myself” I am with the students, the more comfortable I am with teaching. Both readings discuss the idea that there are some common techniques that one might find useful to adopt, but there is no “perfect” or “ideal” teaching style. They are all a little different and can be equally as beneficial.

Why learn when you can memorize?

In reading Alfie Kohn’s piece, “The Case Against Grades”, I feel like a lot of what he is saying makes innate sense. When we know we are being assessed, we always want to be the best and come out on top.  I think it is in most of our nature to be competitive and strive to be the best.  However, as mentioned in his piece as well as the piece by Dan Pink, this most often inhibits any chances of learning or thinking.

A personally relevant example of this is how fourth year veterinary students are assessed. The first three years of veterinary school (here) are primarily didactic in nature.  You spend all day in a classroom learning lots of facts and a few ways to problem solve.  However, in your fourth year, you get the opportunity to use everything you have learned and rotate through the veterinary teaching hospital.  Here, at Virginia Tech, fourth year rotations are graded pass-fail (well, at least they were when I went through 5 years ago).  This was exceptionally relieving to me.  As a lifelong overachiever and fact-memorizer, I was just as Alfie Kohn discusses in his essay.  I was completely fixated on grades and would do whatever it took (ethically of course) to get the grade.  If I needed to pull an all-nighter to memorize a bunch of facts, spit them out the next day and forget them forever, I would.  When I had to write an essay, I would sit the rubric right next to my computer making sure to address each point whether it related to my topic or not.  (In fact, I once got an A on a paper with a note from the professor stating this was almost the worst paper he had ever read as it made absolutely no sense.  However, I had earned an A based on the criteria laid out in the rubric.  If THAT’S not suggestive of a problem in the system, I don’t know WHAT is!)  But, in my eyes, I needed the good grade to get into the good college to get a good job.  I kept this mentality through vet school (although now, looking back-it seems so silly).  When I got to my fourth year clinical rotations, I finally felt like I could take a breath and use what I had learned.  I wasn’t concerned with making the highest grade or knowing the most factoids.  The beauty of it was that I could focus on my patient, learn my case, and integrate facts with real world situations.

I think this generally applies to most disciplines. In real life, there is typically not a “right” or “wrong” answer.  You take what you have learned, integrate it into the problem you have in front of you and create a solution.  In my case, not being graded on an A-F scale in my fourth year allowed me more freedom to feel comfortable learning.  I’m sure many would agree that, I afforded the opportunity, they would find this just as freeing.

Is anti-teaching the answer?

Mike Wesch’s piece on Anti-teaching is a very interesting reading. I have to say that I was intrigued by the reference to contemporary techniques in teaching as “anti-teaching” and then traditional teaching as “teaching”.  He suggests that traditional teaching is a “hindrance to learning”.  I definitely see where this feel could come from.  Especially in the last decade, a lot has changed and such an emphasis on testing has made teaching about conveying facts and teaching to the test.  I completely agree that this is (ineffective) teaching as it takes away ALL interesting subject matter and only focuses on what is necessary to “know for the test”.  However, there is some value to didactic learning which I think is falling into this category of (ineffective) “teaching”.  Some students do actually respond to lectures and ppts though I agree not everyone.  Each student learns a little bit differently.  The nice think about the more contemporary approach (or anti-teaching) is that it gets students to think.  There is still a place for facts and figures but getting our future generations to think and problem solve is where contemporary pedagagy will be have such an advantage.

Connected learning: Reconciling the old with the new?

Up until the first class, I had never heard of connected learning. Though I wouldn’t consider myself “old” per se, I would consider myself old-fashioned.  I use a computer when I have to, I really don’t care for blogging, and I do not have a Twitter account.  For me, a technologically inept person, the learning curve is just too steep for me to see a lot of reward in it.  However, the introduction of the connected learning concept really reminded me of how important the internet is and how much I take it for granted; especially the accessibility of information.  In the not so distant past, the best way to access academic knowledge was to go to a library.  Now, especially with open access, we can sit at our computers and have almost anything at our fingertips.  And the students of today (and yesterday too) have benefitted greatly from this technology.  But this has also made their learning experiences a little different.  Sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher (or professor) provide knowledge on a subject in which they were experienced used to be the best way to gain skills and knowledge in a particular topic.  Now, students have access to knowledge in just as many (arguably more) subject areas at the touch of a button.  So how do we reconcile this in a classroom?  It seems this is where the connected learning comes into play.  As I understand it, the idea is to get students interested and excited to go out and experience knowledge the way in which they would like as opposed to sitting in a classroom being lectured.  I think this is a really interesting concept and could really change the way people learn and get excited about learning.