on teaching

I got my grades for last semester, and I did fine, but I have some reflections on the whole teaching and learning process because while I did well, I was frustrated with my semester. One of my classes had too much of a meta approach, standing too far away from the subject, and too wrapped up in the theoretical details. The theory is not what is going to get anything done in sustainable development. Theory is fine for most of the students if backed up with good case study at least, so we can see how some of these themes play out in the field, but for the most part case studies were tacked on as an afterthought, or we skipped over them for lack of time during lectures. Let’s not mind the fact that I have a problem with entirely lecture based courses, if it’s going to be a lecture it needs to be a good one (and I have had a few classes that pull that off very well).  If you’re not a truly gifted lecturer (and they’re rare), then by all means do something else some of the time.  I believe that professors need to be really careful about writing a text book because it is far too tempting to just read from the book.

We had three lecturers for that class, and the two authors ran into a lot of problems pulling solely from book material. There was a point early on in the course where we were taught a sort of crash course in economics that was truly teaching, but once that was covered we went back to a sort of glorified reading of the book and powerpoint slides.

My other class this semester lacked organization, and expectations for student work were not really fully disclosed until after the fact. It made it very hard to judge what the students should be doing, and some of the learning felt too last minute to really be comfortable to execute student projects. I felt like part of the culprit was packing too much into a class. The course covered two subject areas that could easily stand alone as their own classes, and the professors did not really forge the connection between the two enough to make the cohesion of the course clear.

Of course, it doesn’t help that teaching staff are often very difficult to contact.

I’m willing to grant the contact issue if everything is well thought out and well done, but in last semester’s context that wasn’t the case. I did well, but I was not satisfied, and I was not satisfied with the amount of learning. It comes down to one basic fact: I have had a lot of teachers, and many of them are amazing at what they do. They are undoubtedly outstanding people in their own field. The problem is that they don’t know how to teach. It’s frustrating because they have information I want to learn, but they don’t have a handle on good ways to get that message across.

I will grant that courses in education aren’t necessarily going to get this information across either. There is a lot of focus on psychological principles, and not necessarily enough of a focus on practical in the classroom approaches. The things I have a problem with are problems everywhere. Elementary school, high school, university, and grad school. It bothers me because the only people who can succeed have to be brilliant enough to suck up the information regardless of presentation format as well as devise the appropriate format of regurgitation, because most exams are not looking for a synthesis of information.

It’s an educational flaw, in my estimation, because teaching is flawed, student expectations are also flawed. What do students want? Often they want a good grade to get the degree to get into another good school, or to get a good job. Most folks I know have to start learning things all over again, or have to actually learn what they do all over again when they start a job, because they didn’t learn a job skill in school, they learned theoretical information. It makes it look to me like most jobs can be done with or without the college degree, just maybe some coursework in knowledge areas of focus. Still, requiring a college’s piece of paper is a great way to narrow down a list of job applicants.

People wonder why so many students become apathetic, or wonder why attrition rates are so wonky. I think that wraps it all up right there. Students go to college either because they want to or because it’s expected of them. If they want to go and they get there and they find out that college is not all they think it’s cracked up to be, even if they’re really smart, then why would they stay? The temptation is to go do something that’s actually fulfilling and rewarding where they can actually learn something. As for students who go because it’s expected… so long as the workload doesn’t exceed their willingness to work, then they’ll probably stay. Beyond that and they’ll go somewhere else, or leave altogether. While community is very important, and many schools work so hard on fostering a good student community, I think that the problem is actually in education, but no one is willing to go in and tackle that because that would involve telling people they have to change what they do.

Teachers often teach the way they were taught. I can’t say I blame them for this, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right. It’s similar to the way that parents often do things their parents did. Do we improve this by making teachers spend more time on prep? I don’t know. I think teachers need to learn what other teachers are doing, really see different ways of teaching, different ways of hitting on different modes of learning in the classroom, because they just don’t get it. Some of what I’m talking about is workshops. Some of what I’m talking about might be just sitting around the table sharing experiences.  This isn’t the current teacher’s retreats or workdays that happen, because that just seems to be glorified back patting and touchy-feely projects that don’t actually translate into something that helps students learn better.

I got many ideas from other teachers through my various teaching jobs, partly because I wanted to do better. I’d ask questions, see what others were doing. Part of it was an effort to keep my job. Part of it was getting my supervisor in my classrooms to see what I could do different. Yes, many people don’t like that, but a teacher can’t afford to be secretive if they want successful students. A teacher’s job is to teach, and if it’s not working then it needs to change. Most folks I know working at the primary and secondary level talk about the inability to change, the need to keep up appearances when being “checked up on,” and the need for students to pass standardized tests. Granted, most of the teachers I talk to are excellent and are pulling their hair out about other teachers their students have. The current mainstream education approach in our schools is just hiding the problems.

It’s sad to say that the collegiate level seems to be just as much of a problem. We fill out evaluations of our classes at the end of the semester, but it’s more of a formality than anything else. I would love for these people to get together around a table, drop the overly-academic act, and talk about what their students need and find most effective. I think they’d be surprised to find that it’s the teachers that are most down-to-earth and non-conventional that actually get the most creativity out of the students. I’m not saying to take away rigor, or to take away lectures, but to add variation and think about how much the students are falling off. If lectures are all we learn, lectures are all we are going to be able to do in the future, and they’re not going to be very good ones at that. At least for my sustainable development focus, that’s not going to help me make any kind of changes in the world. I don’t mind striking out on that different path, I just would love to see the experts teaching me this stuff to really show what they can do, and do in a non-classroom context, in the classroom.

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