A conversation with Joan Middendorf of Indiana University on student learning bottlenecks.
Joan’s specialty lies in leading faculty groups to make disciplinary ways of thinking available to students. With David Pace she developed the “Decoding the Disciplines” approach to define crucial bottlenecks to learning, dissect and model expert thinking, and assess student performance. Joan and the History Learning Project (Pace and Professors Arlene Diaz and Leah Shopkow) were awarded the Menges Research Award from the Professional Development Network in Higher Education and the Maryellen Weimer Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning Award.
When I think of teaching, I think of classrooms filled with eager students who are ready to absorb the knowledge saturating the room. I further envision students using that knowledge to advance humankind to new and exciting heights. Okay. My vision may be somewhat fanciful, but we, as teachers, have the ability to spark a curiosity and a desire to learn in our students that no one else can. The quality of our teaching is a powerful factor in maintaining the interest of our students and supporting their achievement in their chosen fields of study and beyond.
We take seriously the influential power that we have over our students’ educational experience. We read about, and meet to discuss with our colleagues, those teaching tools and techniques that will be most effective in helping our students to learn. We learn about all of the latest pedagogical approaches being used in classrooms around the world. We hear phrases like “flipping the classroom”, “problem-based learning”, “team teaching” and “integrative learning”, and we willingly conduct the research necessary to determine if these ideas can be successfully incorporated into our teaching process. Then, we begin to incorporate the practices that we believe will work. We find that some work better than others, some work only for a finite period of time and some don’t work at all.
Our willingness to see what works, and what doesn’t, makes us better teachers. At a given time, any of a number of pedagogical strategies can work in a classroom, but it is important to understand that their effectiveness can ebb and flow. Students may transition from or outgrow a particular method of teaching or a particular method may lend itself to one discipline and not another. The important part is to try. If it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t work, then try something else. In either case, always share the hits and the misses with others so that they can benefit from what we’ve already learned. Ultimately, it is the students who benefit.
It is a safe assumption that some form of the old tried and true lecture will always be a part of teaching, but never be unwilling to transform the learning experience with new and innovative practices. Conversely, appreciate when a practice is not supporting the goal of educating students. In The Flip: End of a Love Affair, we are reminded of the power of pedagogical tools and the even greater power of understanding when we should move on to the next one.
You can't use humor to be liked. You have to use it to make a point. Especially for women, too often our sense of self-esteem or even, in a professional setting, our sense of accomplishment comes from, you know, do they like me? And it can't work that way. Teaching certainly can't function that way. It has to be: did I make this point effectively? Did they get it? And that's very different than being liked.
That element of choice and trust between the teacher and the student I think are important aspects of creating a good learning environment, and I think the authoritarian syllabus tends to work against it. Authoritarian syllabuses can achieve certain things. You can get people to do things. But you can't get them to want to learn. That was my epiphany, if you like.
A conversation with Dr. Arthur Zajonc of Amherst College on teaching, learning, and contemplative inquiry.
While we may begin with the "pause that refreshes," if we leave it only at that then it's seen only as a break from learning. I'm really keen on it being seen also as a means of learning. That is to say, we school our attention — that's long been a part of the contemplative traditions, the deepening and stabilizing of attention — then, if we can bring that deepened and stabilized attention to the work at hand, it's going to be far more productive. And in addition, if one can take up a practice such as this contemplative inquiry practice, we add to that an enhanced learning capacity. So not only attention is schooled but also a new modality of inquiry is also offered to the student.
Native ways of knowing have been documented now over the last dozen years or so in ways that teachers can recognize and acknowledge in their teaching and utilize as strengths in the classroom.... So when you're teaching science, you use the traditional knowledge, that people have developed over millennia to survive in a very harsh environment, to demonstrate that science is something that's practiced every day in the community. And you can find situations in the community where you can demonstrate the subject matter that would otherwise be taught from a textbook, and that's called for in the state science standards, but starting with something that's there in the community that students can relate to. And that has been one of the few if not the only approach that has made a significant difference for native students, to capitalize on their strengths, rather than punish them for their differences.
I tell my students that one of my goals for every class that I have is that I want them to be uncomfortable at times. I say that if they're comfortable with everything we've discussed and it doesn't sound new to them or unusual then they're not learning in the class, and that in order to grow and develop we have to have some growing pains, and so we have to have some discussions that push our boundaries a little bit, that make us a little bit uncomfortable... Thinking sometimes hurts.