Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Philosophy of Teaching College Students

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word teach derives from an Old English term that means "to point out" or "to show." A teacher, then, is someone who points out or shows to others something they had not seen before. This metaphor suggests at least three things about teaching.

First, it suggests that the teacher knows something significant that is not obvious, something useful that is not immediately accessible. The critical transfer requires someone who can identify for the learners something they would not otherwise know. This aspect of the work of teaching places the first responsibility upon the shoulders of the teacher. He or she must possess a deep knowledge of what is to be taught. Every student has had the bad experience of being "taught" by someone who did not really know the subject. By contrast, students usually appreciate and truly learn from the teacher who "knows his stuff" as they say.

Second, a teacher must give attention to the question of method. It is rumored that when Yogi Berra became a baseball manager, many of his players recognized that he understood the game as well as anyone. But they were often frustrated when Berra struggled to tell them what he knew. By definition, a genuine scholar is someone who has gained a deep understanding of a certain field of knowledge. But not everyone who has mastered a discipline can effectively teach it to someone else.

What are the best ways to teach? The answers to that question will vary, depending on factors like the subject, class size, the length of class sessions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the teacher. However, none of those significant issues matches the importance of the students themselves. In recent decades, educational theorists have partially succeeded in their attempts to convince teachers to give due consideration not only to their subjects, but also to their students. More than anyone else, David J. A. Clines has challenged me to think of my students as fellow learners. His writings and lectures have helped me to become more effective in the classroom. He has taught me to resist the urge to adopt the role of "sage on the stage," and to act more like an expert "guide on the side."

Absorbing the best ideas, practicing the best methods, and becoming a more effective teacher of students is an on-going challenge for me. But having taken up that challenge, I have discovered a few things, and have come to some conclusions about applying the concept of student-centered learning. For example, I believe it is important for teachers to vary their methods of instruction, to come up with creative ways in which they can involve their students in an array of learning activities. Doing this not only helps to retain their attention, it also ensures that students engage and discover for themselves a wider variety of ways to learn. When students watch a video clip, listen to music, fill out a short questionnaire, or pass an interesting object around the room, the senses of sight, hearing, and touch become a bigger part of the learning experience. When students in small groups discuss a well-worded question, and then report their answers to the rest of the class, they challenge and teach one another in lively, unpredictable ways. They also develop a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning.

Third, the root meaning of the word teach suggests that an ideal learning experience is one where students want to see what it is that the teacher is pointing out to them. But how do teachers help to motivate their students to be real learners? How can they ensure that once the semester is over, the learning will continue?

As I see it, this is one problem where the much-maligned lecture can be a part of the solution. What good can the lowly lecture do? Current research indicates that, although the lecture has its pitfalls as a teaching method, there are a few things it accomplishes well. For example, lectures can help students to read an assignment more effectively by providing an orientation and conceptual framework. Lectures are also good for summarizing material that is scattered over a variety of sources. In my opinion, the great potential of a lecture is realized whenever a teacher speaks clearly and enthusiastically about his or her area of expertise. This is not only great teaching, it also models for students what it means to be a scholar.

Sometimes when I am leading a discussion, especially if the question is open-ended and still unresolved, a student will speak up and ask, "So where do you come out on this?" At that point, I have the opportunity to explain my choice, why I have chosen it, and my relative certainty about my decision. Best of all, at that point I am talking to people who actually care about all of those things. They want to know what the teacher thinks. In that moment, I'm teaching.


Amelia Grace Hill said...

I appreciate these ideas. Two things:
1. What does a "guide on the side" do that a "sage on a stage" doesn't?
2. I'm wondering how to incorporate these ideas into a Bible class. Imagine teaching a class on heaven and trying discussion, objects, quizzes, diagrams, etc.

John Hill (on his daughter's account)

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, John! Good to hear from you. Just a bit about your questions.

(1) A guide on the side doesn't lecture through almost all of every class session. A guide on the side doesn't teach a class as though it were an episode of Jeopardy! (just the correct information), but rather like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (which draws viewers into the experience of the contestant). A guide on the side is not simply conveying information, but is doing more to stoke a fire. For a lot more, see Clines:

(2) A class on the subject of heaven. Here's a question: As children, we thought of heaven as a place. As we got older, we realized that heaven was not somewhere to the left of Mars. Although described in spatial terms, it's really more like a spiritual state of being. Is there any sense in which heaven is a place? What other religious terms and ideas use spatial language to describe something that transcends three dimensions, and even time?

drkenney said...

Enjoyed this post! I can recall Winford Claiborne stating he learned so much from teaching college students that helped him become a better teacher. A two way street! All the best, David

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, David. Always good to hear from you.