Education Opinion

Good Teaching Really Matters! Who Knew?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 09, 2014 3 min read
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A few years ago, I started work on a doctorate in Education Policy, which I assumed would be the pinnacle of (and I use the term sincerely) higher learning. As in: seminars around important educational questions, smart and diverse colleagues, the intellectual challenge of my (already considerable) lifetime.

What I wasn’t expecting was brilliant teaching. None of us were--and most of my grad-school colleagues were bent on university teaching careers themselves. We’d all spent plenty of time in higher education, and knew better. We were veterans of the 200-student lecture hall, half-completed readings, listless discussion, grinding out research papers whose sole purpose was a grade. This is not to say that I didn’t have knowledgeable, talented professors--I certainly did. But I wasn’t assuming they had a responsibility to engage me in learning or motivate me.

What brought this into sharp focus was a simulation we did in Pro Seminar, based on Bill Bigelow’s Testing, Tracking and Toeing the Line: A Role Play on the Origins of the Modern High School. All first-year doc students in education did substantial background reading (including all the books on the resource list--and more), then were assigned roles with a clear socio-economic status. (I got to play a well-off white woman attending a contentious school board meeting.)

In an introduction to the project, Bigelow notes:

What we don't teach in school can be more important than what we do teach. When we fail to engage students in thinking critically about their own schooling, the hidden message is: Don't analyze the institutions that shape your lives; don't ask who benefits, who suffers, and how it got to be this way; just shut up and do as you're told. ...allow students to question aspects of schooling they often take for granted, such as tracking ("ability grouping"), standardized testing, guidance counseling, student government, the flag salute, bells, required courses with patriotic themes, and extracurricular activities like athletics and the school newspaper.

Although I found the exercise fascinating, the two-hour role play was, pretty much, a bust. There was open resistance from many graduate students who found imagining themselves on different sides of an issue “silly.” International students, arriving with their laptops and translation dictionaries, were thoroughly confused--why were we pretending to be Thorndike and Dewey? There was lots of harrumphing about how this might be OK for high school students, but not serious doctoral candidates at a Research One university.

Although the simulation was designed to question everyone’s assumptions about schooling, it ended up demonstrating just how the most successful academics become locked into particular pedagogical models--the models, it should be noted, where they have shown exemplary performance: reading dense texts, extracting key bits of knowledge, discussing, opinionating, writing equally dense and scholarly papers, yada yada.

Pretending to take an opposing viewpoint? Extemporizing? Playfulness? No dice. In fact, irritation over the simulation spilled over into other courses, with other professors righteously pooh-poohing the idea that role-playing was “appropriate” at the advanced graduate level.

But (says the long-time K-12 teacher): Why not?

There are some really important questions buried here, around the nature of pedagogy. How is it that people learn? What sticks in their brains? What role does instruction have in embedding useful learning?

After NCLB was established, discussions around the “highly qualified teacher” often centered on content expertise as the key quality that made teachers effective. A teacher with a content major was a better bet than someone with mere facility in managing a class. Or--was a rigorous, pre-selected curriculum the ticket to better learning, trumping whatever it is that teachers do in the classroom?

I’m certain I am speaking for teachers everywhere when I say this: Pedagogy is a real thing. What teachers--and professors--do in their classes matters. It impacts learning, application and motivation. And pedagogy is not simply technique--it’s not a bag of management tips and tricks. It begins with knowing your students, having a clear picture of what they need to learn, devising and adapting strategies, sometimes shooting from the hip. And paying attention to your results.

In a kind of breathless wonder, earlier this week, the NY Times shared this news:

What's exciting now is that even universities that prize academic research are putting more emphasis on teaching, says Matthew Kaplan, interim director for the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan. "There is pressure to have students engaged in their learning beyond 'Come to the lecture, do the reading.' " He recalls that Michigan's provost spent 55 minutes of a recent hour long faculty meeting talking about teaching.

Fifty-five minutes spent discussing teaching! At a university! Imagine that.

The rest of the piece describes a selection of “special” courses, the kind that college students are lining up to get into--courses with famous lecturers, a MOOC with a staff of 120, courses on entrepreneurial philanthropy, and some real-life adventures including tornado chasing. One course is a series of--hey!--simulations that sounds like an extended episode of Survivor.

The fact that “even universities that prize academic research” are giving a thought to teaching is good news, I guess--although undergraduates in education courses shouldn’t probably count on learning how to teach from their professors, just yet.

All of this raises questions: How do we define good pedagogy? Does it cross developmental levels? Can you be too old (or too intellectually stiff) to learn from play? How does good teaching differ from entertainment? And how do we get more of it?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.