Response to Faculty Herald's "Dialogue on Good and Bad Teaching"
By Pamela E. Barnett, Associate Vice Provost & Director, Teaching and Learning Center
What great teachers do and believe
Ken Bain’s bestseller, What the Best College Teachers Do, delivers on the promise of its title, offering some actions that an aspiring “best college teacher” might take. But one of Bain’s important findings is that success depends not only what we do, but to a significant extent on what we believe. What are our core beliefs about our purposes as educators? What are our beliefs about our students or human learning?
The best college teachers, it turns out, believe that students are naturally curious, want to grow and are capable of learning, but that schooling has often blunted those qualities. When confronted with the inevitable – students who have difficulty or display lack of motivation – the best college teachers examine their own courses and practices. Here’s what the best college teachers do not do: decide that the failure to learn is wholly the fault of students who are lazy, entitled or lacking in intelligence. Rather, they reflect on what they might do differently, often talking with colleagues or studying the literature, because they share a core set of assumptions about students’ capacity to learn and their own role to facilitate their learning, even when it’s hard.
Their actions are also based on the fundamental belief that everything they do must be designed to facilitate and produce learning. In the Herald’s “Dialogue on Good and Bad Teaching,” Steve Newman suggests that “bad teaching tends to emerge when the teacher forgets the students.” It may seem obvious, and yet I think we have all experienced teaching that is more about a teacher’s performance than about the students’ capacity to learn from it. Everything we do at The Teaching & Learning Center aims to promote this basic conceptual orientation toward learning-centered beliefs and approaches. A brilliant, well-organized and well performed lecture that represents the cutting edge in the field is good teaching if students learn from it, but ineffective if it goes over their heads. A charismatic or funny classroom presence is good teaching if it motivates students to attend to the course concepts, but just for show if it leads only to laughter and not learning. A test on which the majority of students earn an “A” indicates excellent teaching if it accurately and fairly measures significant learning goals, but is a very bad sign if students do not need to study or stretch to excel on it.
The best college teachers begin with learning-centered teaching beliefs that are then expressed in learning-centered course design, delivery, and assessment. As a few participants in the Dialogue have noted, excellent teachers have clear and significant goals for their students’ learning. Rebecca Alpert offers a prompt that I think everyone who aspires to excellence should ask during the design and delivery of a course: “A year (or more) after this course is over I hope students will _____.” What do you hope your students will learn or be able to do long after they’ve passed your exam or completed your assignments? Jerry Ianelli is on the mark when he celebrates teachers who “cared more about teaching how to learn than about teaching information.”
In one of my favorite SNL skits, Father Guido Sarducci pitches his “Five-Minute University,” which awards diplomas to students who know just the things that one can expect to remember five years after graduation. For Economics, it is “supply and demand.” For Spanish class, it is knowing how to respond appropriately to “¿Cómo estás?” No doubt Temple students remember a great deal more than Father Guido’s graduates. But I know from countless conversations with faculty members in every department that our goals for our students’ learning are far more ambitious than memorized content. We want students to use information in meaningful ways, to connect what they know to new knowledge, to be able to evaluate new knowledge or arguments, to apply it to examine important questions or solve problems.
Newman asserts that “effective teaching typically requires reverse engineering, working backwards from where you want students to go.” In the teaching and learning world, we call this “backwards design.” It seems like such a simple concept: begin with the end in mind. If we first define the outcomes we believe have lasting value, we can then design assessments to measure students’ mastery of these with precision. From there, a teacher should determine exactly what material must be covered, what experiences students must have, what skills must be practiced and honed, in order for students to gain the knowledge and skills we aim to foster. Instead of beginning with the question of what material to cover, course design decisions get made with the learning goals in mind.
This approach does not come automatically to many of us, as we often think of our disciplines as bodies of knowledge to be mastered. In my early years as a professor of English & African American Studies, I’ll confess that I designed more than a few courses by first asking “What great works of 20th century literature must my students read to be educated and enriched human beings?” I’d make a list of great books and then agonize over the impossibility of cramming all of the “must reads” into one semester. Once I decided that one of my goals was for students to closely analyze a complex literary text and privileged that significant learning goal above all, I was then liberated to spend some time on William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, practicing and building analytical skills rather than catapulting ahead to make sure we “covered” another great work. My students learned more by doing more with one text: more research, more writing, more discussion, more thinking. . .
I don’t want to trivialize the “coverage” question. If students are to progress through a course of study, they must master at least the trunk of a large body of disciplinary material. But it is worth remembering that covering the material is not the same as uncovering the material. If your goals include higher order thinking skills, and you are serious about giving students the opportunities and feedback to hone these, then you are going to have to make some hard choices about exactly what facts, information, and concepts you can address in your fifteen-week window.
How do we evaluate good teaching?
This Faculty Herald dialogue goes some distance toward an aspiration we at The Teaching and Learning Center have: to elevate the status and practice of teaching by making it “community property,” something for which we feel collective responsibility and something we improve by our shared attention. Stanford’s Lee Schulman, President Emeritus of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, shares a telling story from his first months on the tenure track. As a new Assistant Professor, he assumed that scholarship would be the site of intense introspection and solitude, as he engaged with texts and data in the library and at his desk. He looked forward to getting outside of his own head by engaging with his students, but also with his colleagues about their shared role as teachers. What he found was the exact opposite, experiencing “isolation not in the stacks but in the classroom.” His research was a site of professional community, as colleagues reviewed, discussed, and sometimes challenged his scholarly work. Professional community was advanced as colleagues engaged the latest research and ideas in the discipline at conferences and in the pages of peer-reviewed journals. Unexpectedly, teaching was the professorial activity conducted in solitude.
Schulman was disappointed at the lack of opportunity and culture for sharing ideas about teaching, and also concerned about the consequences of this pedagogical solitude for students. He argues that when teaching is not “community property,” it is devalued. He envisions departmental cultures where colleagues collectively engage around a shared priority to educate. When teaching is conducted outside of the engagement of the professional community, educators also miss opportunities for feedback, reflection, and improvement. Schulman advocates for peer review of teaching that is as attentive as that applied to research and creative products. He argues that if teaching is to be held to any meaningful standard for quality, colleagues must review each other’s teaching according to standards developed for their disciplines.
To my mind, Schulman offers some of the best arguments for “getting beyond the SFFs” as the sole measure of teaching quality. These arguments – for enhanced reflection, community, and teaching quality – have been part of the Faculty Senate SFF committee dialogue since the beginning. Even as the group worked on its first charge – to improve the SFF instrument and the process of administration and data collection –we were always also concerned with how to support alternative assessments. The group worked hard to improve the university’s form, all the while agreeing that no matter how good the instrument, it should never be the only instrument for evaluating the complicated work of facilitating learning. That argument was voiced by committee members, and was echoed by faculty colleagues at the several forums and meetings hosted about SFFs over the years.
When the committee recently finished its work with the SFFs, members decided to continue and make these other measures our primary concern. The work has already begun. Thirty-eight department and school teams have participated in TLC working groups to develop processes and evaluation instruments for standards-based peer review of teaching. I chaired a sub-committee that recommended some guidelines for teaching portfolios which would include evidence from three sources: the instructor, peers, and students. I am happy to report that these guidelines are, as of this fall, institutionalized in CLA’s merit process for non-tenure track faculty. I believe Temple would be an even stronger educational institution if these guidelines were adopted across the board to evaluate teaching quality for hiring, tenure & promotion, contract renewal, merit, and teaching awards.
A teaching portfolio can offer a thorough and nuanced picture of an educator’s philosophy, choices and effectiveness, beginning with a reflective narrative in which an educator tells his or her story. What kinds of approaches have been used, and why? What has the instructor learned from colleagues via peer review or from students via SFFs? What has the instructor learned from investing in his/her own professional development as a teacher? Can the instructor demonstrate student learning outcomes which really are the gold standard for effective teaching? The Faculty Senate committee is interested in promoting additional evaluation methods, and I think we all share a larger goal of advancing a culture of reflective teaching practice and elevating the status and practice of our work as university educators.
TEXTS FOR TEACHING
In 2009, the Teaching and Learning Center developed Temple’s Teaching in Higher Education Certificate. There are tracks for matriculated Temple graduate students, but also for Temple and other Philadelphia-area faculty who enroll as non-matriculated students. The following texts are included on the syllabus for the certificate’s requisite course, and we recommend them highly.
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bain, Ken. (2004) What the best college teachers do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S.D., (2006). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom, (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Burgstahler, S. E. (2008). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Fink, D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. •