Ironies in teaching and learning to teach

Do you know what I want from teaching? I want it to be easy, fun, and super rewarding. It can take time, but not too much. I want my students to keep in touch, to come back years later, remembering some tidbit they learned in my class, or some way of thinking they never forsook. I want them to think of me the way I think of my very best teachers. But this cannot be all-consuming, for many other things are asked of me. Besides, I like to teach a lot of different things, not just a few. I’m generally quite happy with my teaching experiences, though there are things I always wish I could do better.

I suppose after decades in the classroom, more than half a century, if you count both sides of the podium, I am hard to surprise. But I always learn something I can use when I go to teaching workshops, so I keep going. Today Wash U held its biannual iTeach workshop, from 9 to 4:30, feeding us well, as I have come to expect.

We started with a great plenary by Wash U’s own Keith Sawyer, an expert on creativity. What a great place to begin! He didn’t hit on exactly the points on creativity I usually cover (see the proposal-writing blog). Instead, he focused a lot on collaboration, drawing on his experience as a part-time jazz pianist. He summarized the standard teaching, which I call lecture-test, but he called instructionism.

With instructionism there are some assumptions that he said are not always spelled out: that knowledge is a collection of facts, that schooling has the goal of getting facts into the students’ heads. We teachers know these facts and so need to transmit them, beginning with the easy stuff. Then we evaluate them, and others evaluate us, according to how many facts got into those heads.

Keith didn’t think much of instructionism. He said the knowledge acquired is superficial; it is poorly retained; it is not easily connected or integrated with other learning experiences and so does not educate the whole person, or allow for much creativity. Instead, he would like us to teach the innovative learner who will have deep understanding of complex concepts which they can manipulate, relate to other areas, and generally make shine. But of course, I think we would all say we want this. Keith says group projects are the way to get this. Hey – did you ever have a lab partner where you had to do all the work?

Seriously, he had some good ideas on group projects. One was that the problems they had to solve had to be too hard for one person to solve alone. He also acknowledged that what he was proposing was difficult. He suggested we learn continually, work collaboratively, engage in “mutual tinkering” and switch it up with new partners frequently.

He said creativity is more important to our students and society than at any time in history. Such statements always make me queasy. How about when we humans were figuring out agriculture, or moving to the far, far north out of homey, warm Africa.

This may seem really, really funny, but to some degree you could characterize the entire rest of the workshop sessions I went to (except the one on how to use Blackboard) as how to get to be better at pounding those facts into those lovely undergrad brains.

Those of us who teach of course know that we do have to get the students to learn some facts and that with these facts they can build lovely intellectual constructs. For example, the undergrads in my research lab must learn the important fact that there is only one way to turn off a Bunsen burner: at the tap. If you forget that fact and blow it out (yes, this really did happen once), catastrophe could result (it didn’t).

There was a series of really cool talks about how to best get the facts in, by Carolyn Dufault, someone whose name I didn’t get, and Gina Frey, all of the Teaching Center. If we want to pound in some facts, we are best off having some repetition. That repetition should be spaced out over time of up to a month for best retention after 6 months, according to a paper by Cepeda et al. in Experimental Psychology in 2009.

But the best way to pound that information into their heads is to make them take charge. Reading material is good. If you want to keep it and make it your own, have the students own it by being tested on it, according to Wash U’s own Roediger and Karpicke in Psychological Science, 2006. Even just writing down everything they remembered from a passage was better than reading it over again for information retrieval after a week. This was true for both fact-based questions and questions that required a little more thinking.

One of the really cool things is that the students with the blank piece of paper that actually did the best with recall had the least confidence in their abilities. It turns out their assessment of how much they would remember was quite accurate. The other methods, reading things twice, or four times, or making a concept map, erroneously were overconfident. I hope I am getting this right! It reminds me of a study whose source currently eludes me, that indicated that depressed people actually had a more realistic view of life, but it still is terrible to be depressed.

There was tons more material on what to do in class, how to make it more interactive, how to get students to talk, that you need to cover less material, that facts and concepts actually can be introduced to each other.

So, what was the tidbit that was really new for me? It came from Gina Frey, at the very end, when she was talking about in-class group work, something I do a lot. She backed it up with no data at all. It was that in the groups of students everyone should have a role, and these should rotate often. The roles she suggested were facilitator, scribe, and spokesperson. The latter has to use the notes of the scribe. I could see this system might solve some issues I saw with group work.

Oh, there was one other thing. I finally figured out how I could do a study of some of my teaching techniques in an experimentally robust way with controls, without boring everyone to death, but that is the subject for another day.


iTeach was on our first snowy day! Should I move back to Texas?


Keith Sawyer gave the plenary address.


Gina Frey deep in conversation after her talk.


Doug Chalker and Eric Herzog, both biology professors and excellent teachers.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in The joy of teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ironies in teaching and learning to teach

  1. Joel Parker says:

    Nice post. I am very curious about the last statement about testing your techniques. This seems to be one of the biggest, most challenging and politically loaded problems that has everyone. Can you elaborate?

  2. keithsawyer says:

    Interesting that you say that after the morning plenary, the rest of the day was all about “how to pound facts into people’s heads better.” Maybe we are still a long ways away from deeper learning for greater creativity? But I know there are places all over Washington University where professors are doing learning-sciences based classrooms–in engineering, in art and design, in business. They just weren’t giving the presentations, apparently.

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