September 03, 2012

Education: Reflections on Teaching

After the American Century

Today I begin teaching again. The first class I ever taught was at the University of Minnesota, in the fall of 1969. I was a half time instructor in composition (freshman English), and I did not even have my MA degree yet. But there were 200 sections of freshman composition to be staffed, and based on my first year of graduate work I was deemed qualified. 

Now 43 years have rushed by, and I have taught students at many universities, and expanded the range of my (in)competence to a much wider range of courses than composition (which I taught until 1974, when my PhD was completed.) 

I have spent literally thousands of hours in classrooms. Here are some of the things I have learned about teaching.

(1) Every class has its own personality, which develops quickly, certainly within the first three or four meetings. The teacher has some influence on how this collective personality emerges, but less than one might think. An experienced teacher knows what sort of personality a class has quite quickly.

(2) Some classes are dynamic and lively and almost seem to teach themselves. Another class, being taught precisely the same materials by the same teacher in the same semester, is slow and dull and must be dragged along. The students make (or fail to make) the "personality" of the class, but they do not understand this. They think the experience of being together is largely the result of the teacher's personality. The teacher is less central than they realize.

(3) Humor is quite important in the classroom. If students laugh at something I or another student says, they relax and they feel more comfortable. They are sharing a perspective and have become more cohesive. More rarely, and unfortunately, humor can also be a weapon in which a student or group of students is made the butt of jokes. This divides the class in ways that are hard to heal.

(4) As part of the class "personality" students quickly select where and with whom they want to sit. After a very few meetings they almost always go to the same places. If the teacher wants to get them to discuss things, it is a good idea to arrange the chairs to face one another, if a seminar table arrangement does not already do that. It is also a good idea, once in a while, to break up the established micro-groups as part of doing group work.

(5) Students can more easily be passive than active parts of a class. They rather easily fall into the role of observers who feel no responsibility for taking part in discussion. The passive students learn less, because they have not taken a position on a subject and defended it. They are just skating on the surface and are not coming to grips with questions, as they must when speaking. (More recently, those who go on the WEB during class might as well be seeing the class on a television with the sound turned off.)

(6) Student attention spans are limited. Few are willing or able to give their undivided attention to a lecture for an entire hour. A class works better if the teacher shifts activities more often than that.  One needs short periods of lecture, discussion, group work, powerpoint, etc.

(7) Brief conversations during class breaks (or during chance encounters) are quite useful and important. Frequently. there are students who say little during class who are quite willing to talk, one to one, while getting a coffee or stretching their legs in the hall. The Danish practice of having a short break each hour opens the possibility for such informal contacts. During such moments I often find out more regarding whether a student likes or dislikes a reading (and why) than I do during class.

(8) Students need (and like) quite different kinds of teachers. I have colleagues that can reach certain students far better than I can, and I can get on the wave-length of others better than they can. There is no one "ideal" sort of teacher, and certainly no "one best way" to do this job. What works brilliantly for another teacher will flop miserably for me, and the reverse. Ideally, a teaching staff should have considerable variety, and every student will find at least one teacher who seems especially well-suited to them.

(9) Much of what students learn is unintended. The idea that one can lay out a lesson plan and march them through a program is very nice as a theory, but often the student strays off the line of march and reads things not assigned but only mentioned or discovered independently. Because every student comes into class with a much different set of ideas and expectations, they also leave having absorbed much different "lessons."

(10) Often the best hours of teaching deviate quite a bit from the outline I had expected to cover. On those days, perhaps more than others, I was able to engage the students, and their energies and questions moved us in unexpected directions. Too much of this might be a bad thing, but in my experience the problem is not too much such engagement but too little. 

(11) The size of a class is crucial to success. A very small class (say three or four students) is actually quite hard to teach, as it usually lacks the critical mass necessary for dynamism and discussion. But beyond a certain point, somewhere around 25 students, a class becomes less talkative and more passive. This is partly due to shyness, partly due to the time constraints. When I have a class of 50 students for 45 minutes,  if they all speak for an equal length of time each will have less than 60 seconds. That does not permit much dialogue. The larger the class, the more likely it becomes mostly a lecture. This is easier for me, actually, than stimulating and guiding a discussion, but I am convinced the students learn less from lectures, for the most part, my brilliant lectures notwithstanding.

(12) Students do vary from one nation to another, but not as much as one might think or in the ways that might seem obvious. I have taught in the US, Spain, Britain, Holland, and Denmark, and taught guest classes in Norway, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and that is enough of this list already.  But this is a vast subject, so let it wait for another day.