College teachers, take notes

If you went to college, I would ask that you think back on some of the teachers you had. Which ones did you really end up appreciating for what they did to encourage deep learning, and which–although these are the most forgettable–were of the opinion that they were truly amazing intellectual lights whose very presence in the classroom was a blessing in your life? And, far worse, which of them had an axe to grind of a political, personal, or lifestyle nature that somehow colored every fact and discussion that occurred in class–their objective being to indoctrinate as much as to instruct? Or, who used their class as group therapy (I actually had one of those!).

Teachers at the primary and secondary levels are required to possess not only knowledge in their field of study, but also to take courses toward certification that delve into how people learn, the history of education, and best practices and procedures. Not so with college instructors. To teach in college, you must possess–at a minimum–a master’s degree in the discipline being taught. As such, many college teachers may be very knowledgeable about their field, but possess very little understanding–and perhaps some foundational, erroneous assumptions–about how students learn.

What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain (Harvard University Press, 2004) ought to be required reading for 1) every college teacher in America, 2) every parent of a college student, and 3) every college student in the country. Actually, I happened upon this when I discovered a new book by Bain, who is Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of the District of Columbia, titled What the Best College Students Do (Harvard, August 2012), which I hope to review later. But, since I teach at the college level, I was immediately drawn to the older text. One should never stop learning.

Bain cites studies that seek to determine what makes people want to learn, what motivates them in the process, and what can actually cause them to lose motivation (extrinsic motivations, like only wanting a grade, will not encourage deep learning: students must be able to relate the information to real life concerns). But he sums up these studies in very concise language, all of which provides food for thought about how a teacher conducts a class; i.e., what assumptions a teacher makes about himself and his students.

It goes without saying that the best teachers know their material, but how do they get their students to learn? The best of them do not approach a classroom focused on themselves, but on their students. They assume that the students want to learn, and that they are capable of it (the foundational assumption being that people are curious by nature). They trust their students.

The less successful teachers approach teaching with the idea that students aren’t capable of thinking and analyzing a subject until they have all the facts, and thus focus on “covering the material,” building a database for retrieval at a later date. The more successful teachers realize that the brain does not just store information for retrieval, but processes information as it comes in; thus, students are capable of intelligent consideration of issues and topics even with small amounts of information. The best teachers don’t think of themselves as pouring knowledge into empty heads, but rather as midwives who facilitate thinking. Deep learning, not just regurgitation, is their goal; working minds, not just graduated ones, their Holy Grail.

One thing that comes across loudly and clearly is that the student, not the teacher, should be the focus of what goes on in the classroom. This quote by veteran teacher Paul Baker says it best:

My strongest feeling about teaching is that you must begin with the student. As a teacher you do not begin to teach, thinking of your own ego and what you know . . . The moments of the class must belong to the student–not the students, but to the very undivided student. You don’t teach a class. You teach a student.

I am fortunate in that I had quite a few teachers who not only would have agreed with Bain, but who could have written this book–and maybe even a better one. Thank you, Father Zvonimir Djamanov, Dr. Charles Ashanin, Dr. Ruth Rose, Dr. Charles Frank, and Dr. Wolf Fuhrig–to name only a few. I won’t mention the ones who exemplify the worst–largely because I have forgotten their names! That should tell you something!

If you want to be unforgettable, college teachers take notes!

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

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