Unteaching how we think about teaching

Unteaching.  I like that.  We need to unteach the assumptions we carry about teaching.  Foremost is the assumption that teaching is easy.  Anyone can do it.  We see this in our national discussions on school teachers.  Every year in December we lament the annual matric results.  It is so predictable that I am sure the same articles are recycled from year to year.  Why are we surprised that young people coming from communities plagued by poverty and a host of social ills should be performing poorly on an academic exam?  Underlying this is the assumption that it should be an easy task for a teacher to take these young people and transform them into high performing exam writers.  Of course we do know that some school teachers are not at all up to the task and some could be putting in more effort, but I think what we are missing is that there are many teachers working hard in difficult contexts, putting in long hours and lots of care.  I had all the naivety whacked out of me during a memorable teaching practical in the early 1990s when  my youthful self headed off to a Khayelitsha school to start demonstrating how my brilliant teaching would change the world.  The experience left me with a much more realistic sense of what it would take to turn this country around and quite how much growth I was going to have to go through before I could start being part of the change.  Why do we expect schooling to solve all our social problems? 

 Let’s then return to a more modest discussion that focuses on teaching and what it can achieve. I’m sorry but there are no magic bullets in education.  Teaching is a complex activity, sapping of energy and creativity, and the learning outcomes are never assured.  If someone tells you otherwise they are lying.  But we need not despair.  We know that good teaching does make a difference.  It makes learning more likely to happen and it can inspire young people to start to become something in their lives.  Although there is no simple cause and effect relationship between teaching and learning, good teaching is totally focused on learning.  Learning is this extraordinary process where an individual person takes on knowledge and makes it their own, something they hold and with which they can work.  If you want to help that process to happen then you are part of trying to bring together both the learner and the knowledge.  Teaching that is only focused on the knowledge will have a limited impact, especially in a context where you have learners who are still developing their ways of learning.  Teaching that is only focused on the learner will involve people in busy activities that might even make them feel good but no real knowledge will be taken on board.


Now I want to situate our discussion on teaching in the university context.  Unlike school teachers, teaching is only a part of what academics are required to do.  Academic life is a busy job with many different parts that need to be juggled, predominantly teaching, research and administration.  Let’s disabuse ourselves of another notion: The view that somehow we are in the future going to get more resources with which to accomplish our work in universities.  We are not.  This is true pretty much everywhere in the world.  We are most probably going to have to do more with less.  So we need to get really smart.  The way most of us currently allocate time is not always that smart.  So you are going to have limited time to spend on your teaching.  What should you prioritise?  I have identified five things that are top priorities for me.  And I have to confess right away that producing beautiful powerpoint slides is not one of them…

 My first priority centres on the knowledge.  And in the context of teaching in the sciences, for me the focus on conceptual understanding is crucial.  The lecture serves to ‘open up’ the subjects, to create a conceptual map and to establish the major signposts.  You have to go into a lecture knowing the few ‘big ideas’ that you are planning to tackle in that session.  Here, of course, your own clear understanding of the subject is non-negotiable.  But to that you also need to add some sense of where students are likely to trip up.  Unfortunately, schooling tends to encourage the development of high end memorisation skills.  These are of limited use in the learning of science and engineering knowledge.  I try to do everything I can to signal this point.  Significantly, I allow students to bring into a test one A4 page on which they can write anything they like.  Given what we are usually testing in our courses, I find students don’t really need this ‘crib sheet’.  But, significantly, it can reduce some of the exam nerves, and most importantly it demonstrates to students that I will not be asking them much that requires simple recall.


My second priority is to work hard to be able to accommodate as wide a range as possible of student educational backgrounds in the class.  No one said this would be easy but it is the central challenge for university lecturers today.  You are not a good teacher because you can engage a homogeneous group who all came from highly resourced school and family backgrounds.  You are a good teacher because you can (of course) engage this (typically minority) portion of your class as well as the majority for whom life was not so ideal.  A key challenge here is in building an integrated classroom community.  If students feel isolated and marginalised, if they feel that they don’t deserve to be there, then learning is not going to happen.  One thing that I have been working on a lot in the last while are innovations that give extra time on task for those students who need it, noting that you as a teacher do not necessarily have extra time to give.  A first complete no-brainer is to do lecture casting.  Here students have an opportunity to go through parts of the lecture again where they didn’t fully grasp everything the first time it all happened.  We have clear evidence that this is making a significant difference for students who struggle in the course.  This year we kicked off with another innovation in our first year.  Here, students who have performed poorly in the first semester came back on campus for three weeks during the vacation for intensive work with a top postgraduate tutor.  This was extremely well received by students and we are watching the impact as we go forward in the course.


My third priority might surprise some.  I make a tremendous effort to get to know student names.  I teach classes typically in the order of 130 students and I find that over the semester I can pretty much get most names under my belt.  I am not ‘good at names’.  But I simply make this a priority.  I do have a few tricks though.  In the first two weeks of lectures students come in small groups to have a lunchtime cooldrink with me and to tell me something about themselves.  I find that knowing something about a student – ‘He’s the guy from Kimberly who said he is enjoying the big city’ – helps me to remember a name.  I require students to introduce themselves when they participate in class.  This also helps other students to get to know names.  If you want to totally shift the way your students experience your teaching then put effort into names.  It is a very radical thing on a university campus, for a lecturer to greet a student by name.  I have only taught classes up to 150 so I do accept that for those of you with bigger classes this might be a huge challenge.  But the evidence is that many of us teach 150 or fewer students in our classes.


My final two priorities centre on intellectual challenge.  I believe the intellectual challenge has to start in the lecture theatre.  So I am not into passive transmission style lectures.  I ask students questions; I get them to try out small parts of problems; I get them to discuss things in small groups.  This relates to my final priority which is to set clear deliverables and to have high expectations.  I expect my students to work hard and to deliver top quality work.   I require students to drop me a note if they have to miss a class session; this is to develop a facility in communicating with me as a lecturer and a confident professional attitude.  I mark ‘hard’.  I set challenging tests.  I run projects that are complex and open-ended.  I ask probing questions when students do their project oral presentations.  But I also always praise when I see outcomes that are looking good.  I tell the class when I am impressed to see from the website traffic that there was hard work happening in preparation for the test.  I tell them when I like what I am seeing in the project reports.  I also tell them where the next set of challenges will lie and where they need to put more effort. 


This is not an easy job.  This is not a job with a straightforward set of techniques.  But it is the best job.  There is nothing else I would rather be doing with my life.  It is a huge privilege to work with these young people and watch the transformation as they learn and grow.


Photos: Gary Hirson Photography www.garyhirson.com


2 thoughts on “Unteaching how we think about teaching”

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