Saturday, June 26, 2010

Real College Teaching

by Susan Codone

Everyone has a favorite teacher.  I had two in college.  Both professors were always prepared, passionate about what they taught, and eminently practical.  Both were a great model of what a teacher should be and I adored them.  In fact, I've patterned much of my current teaching philosophy on their styles.  After I graduated, I sent one of my favorite professors this quote from John Dewey -- I felt it really captured his approach to teaching and I wanted to remind him of his importance to the world as a teacher.  During my college preparation, he was always engaged; he was always dignified; and I believe that he, and all of us who teach, is a prophet, bringing in the kingdom of God in the lives of whom we teach.

Maybe you’ll agree with Stanford Ericksen of the University of Michigan, who wrote that the public stereotype of a good teacher is a charismatic spellbinder who arouses listeners.  In his 1983 article Private Measures of Good Teaching in Teaching of Psychology, he says the other extreme is the mental disciplinarian who requires hard study and rote memorization for success.  I had professors of both stereotypes in college, but I remember little about them or what they taught me.

In 1993 another professor, Philip Tate, of Boston University, described two "worlds" of teaching that exist in our educational system.  The first world is made up of college professors and the second of elementary and secondary teachers.  Both approach teaching so differently that Tate assigned each a separate "world" of practice.  Tate, in The Two Worlds of Teaching (Journal of Education) describes professors as disciplinary specialists with a top-down instructional style whose only instructional mode is the direct transmission of knowledge.  He believed that knowledge was made up of large ideas held outside the mind.  In contrast, Tate says that secondary teachers work within an ethic of caring that rises above intellectual concerns.  They place their relationship with students just above teaching, which involves a very practical approach using a varied repertoire of instructional methods that they switch between easily. 

Tate contrasts professors with secondary teachers by saying that the latter are more "teachery" in nature.  Should college professors be more teachery – more instructionally varied?  More caring? Tate goes on to say that no one, college professor or high school teacher, who teaches without thought for how the students are learning will be successful, despite how teachery they are.

Much study has been devoted to effective teaching, especially at the college level, and organizations like the American Association of Higher Education and Accreditation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching exist to further improve the field.  In 1987, Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson published seven principles of good practice in higher education -- a landmark list that has been studied and cited repeatedly by authors writing about good teaching.

Furthermore, in 1989 Kenneth Feldman published a meta-analysis of studies on student ratings of teacher quality in Research in Higher Education and identified 17 dimensions of teacher behavior that rated highly with student achievement.  Clearly, instructional behaviors and skills lead to effective teaching.  So, in short, there is research, lists of techniques, best practices, evaluation instruments, meta-analyses of research, and recommendations for good teaching that are readily available.  With all this research, what do we know about what makes a good teacher?  What defines a real teacher?  Why aren't there more really good teachers?  Why do most of us remember only one, or maybe two?

Peter Seldin, from Pace University, says the following in Improving College Teaching:

“…the argument has been raised by some that we still lack the final answer to the question of what constitutes effective teaching.  That may well be true, but the key ingredients of effective teaching are increasingly known.  We have no reason to ignore hundreds of studies that are in general agreement on these characteristics.”

As Seldin says, are all our questions answered?  Do we really know what makes good teaching?  In my experience, one issue is still unresolved.  Parker Palmer, in Good Talk about Good Teaching  (Change, 1993) talks about the privatization of teaching and says this:

"No surgeon can do her work without being observed by others who know what she is doing, without participating in grand-round discussions of the patients she and her colleagues are treating.  No trial lawyer can litigate without being observed and challenged by people who know the law.  But professors conduct their practice as teachers in private.  We walk into the classroom and close the door -- figuratively and literally -- on the daunting task of teaching.  When we emerge, we rarely talk with each other about what we have done, or need to do.  After all, what would we talk about?"

Technique, skills, motivation, relationships with students, content mastery, teaching skill repetoires -- all matter and are important because they prescribe effective teaching.  But we have to admit – we are a private profession, which can sometimes negatively affect our instructional effectiveness. 

open doorWhat do I remember about my two favorite teachers?  I remember openness. They taught with the doors open, and their office doors were always open.  They were open and reflective with us on their teaching, and they knew when we were learning -- and when we were not, they changed course.  Their openness led to personal relationships with many of us, and the ability to observe them not just as professors, but people, and to remember what made them great.  I hope that I remain open as a professor, and that one day my students may remember me.

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