Tuesday, August 27, 2013

a brief teaching statement

I have in the past spent a long time preparing lectures. Like many teachers, I started out believing that the most important thing was for me to present an ideal amount of information in an ideal order with an ideal set of illustrative examples. I have always made time for student practice during class, but I believed somehow that this was a break for the students to reflect upon my masterful presentation and to benefit from it through exercises. Which is to say, if I wish to vary my teaching style, I have already set aside the time, and I can use that time in many different ways.

I will now use that time to prepare questions instead of lectures. Good questions require as much preparation as good lectures. But they flip the students’ classroom experience from essentially passive to essentially active, and activity is what leads to learning. To put a fancy name to it, I will be designing my classes for inquiry-based learning. (I am grateful especially to Dana Ernst and Bret Benesh for providing some helpful thoughts and resources, as well as references to research.) On particularly good days, I hope I won’t even have to state the questions, because the students will come up with them and start to answer them on their own.

I don’t mean that I will entirely give up making presentations (though they will never last longer than 25 minutes). For one thing, it’s pleasant to have a well-received lecture, and they can model mathematical thinking and expression (although those skills are rarely learned purely by osmosis). For another, certain types of material are learned just as well through mimicry as through discovery (if I understand correctly, techniques for calculation generally fall in this category). And lastly, different students have different ways of learning; for some of them, a clear presentation by the instructor really is best, and I want to respect that. (I say this securely on the basis of feedback I have received from students.)

I want the best education for my students. In today’s world, where massive amounts of information are freely available, that means more class time should be spent finding answers, not accumulating facts. And to find answers, one must first have questions. Real questions. Fruitful questions. Questions that are better the closer they are to the mind and heart of the learner.

So my question is, how do I do this?


David Roundy said...

Sounds good, Josh!

We do a whole lot of active engagement here in the Physics Department at Oregon State, and the challenge seems to be getting students to engage.  At the upper-division level, we've got small class sizes (under 38 students) and  rooms that are conducive to group work.

In my experience the challenge is not how to come up with good questions, but how to decide when to bring the entire class together. I have a tendency to get trapped talking with one group at a time, rather than addressing the class as a whole.

Patrick Honner said...

The way I do it is by seeing myself as a learner first, and a teacher second. I'm always exploring and learning, and so I'm always encountering interesting, rich, fruitful questions. Those questions then become the basis for how I and my students learn together.

Joshua Bowman said...

David: Yes, I often have that problem, too, of knowing when to gather the whole class together. This semester, I do have classrooms structured very well for discussion, and hopefully also for me to keep track of how the whole class is doing. And of course students won't always be automatically engaged, even if normally they’d find the questions interesting, but those dynamics have to be dealt with regardless of teaching method.

Patrick: Absolutely! As I begin to compile questions around which to structure my classes, I'm thinking about the points that I have found most fruitful in my own explorations of the topic, especially in probability since this is my first time teaching it.

Part of my point in asking the final question was that trying new ways of teaching it itself a learning experience. These "new" methods are not just going to happen by themselves. The question, "How do I do this?", is basic and all-encompassing, and a reminder that I still have things to figure out beyond just deciding to lecture less.

Bret Benesh said...

Hi Josh,

I think that designing courses around questions is the way to go. Like you, I have no idea how to do it.

At least, I have no idea how to do it in a way that I am comfortable with. I could imagine doing this for most courses if I were to throw out my department's expectation of "coverage" completely, but I am not there yet.

Patrick Bahls seems to have the closest to this in his abstract algebra class (http://changeofbasis.blogspot.com/2011/09/out-of-wilderness.html).

Also, I fully support you keeping lecturing as a tool. I think lecturing is probably very effective _once the students are ready to hear the lecture_. But they need to have thought about the question the lecture is answering prior to hearing it (this is an opinion; I have no research to back this up).