Monday, October 4, 2010

What the Best Teachers Do

Do you ever wonder, as you leave class, what you could have done better?  If that question crosses your mind at any point, take steps to get an answer, for better teaching and for peace of mind.  First, read and talk about good teaching.  Most teachers talk about class sessions that worked best for them, so conversation with other teachers usually offers excellent ideas.

Second, ask your students by conducting a CAT (classroom assessment technique).
This basic task--asking someone if they understand--can reveal a lot of data for you about your teaching techniques and the learning situation you have created.  (Click here for our materials on CATs)

 Third, videotape yourself.  It makes me wince to see myself on tape, but what I find out is to my benefit.  I usually see that my weaknesses are ones I already know about but need to work on, and I learn more about my strengths and can better utilize. 

As far as reading about teaching, two current books provide an interesting contrast--and both employ data collection, years of observations, and interviews with great teachers.  You may have already heard of Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do; you may not have heard of Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion (unless you are in the field of education, because his audience is K-12).  His book has reportedly hovered near best-selling (top 100) status on Amazon.

Ken Bains offers an ideal of college education where students and faculty are engaged in explorations of interesting problems in their  fields.  Although I have seen some light criticism of Bains for focusing on professors at privileged institutions, I am not sure this criticism is completely valid.  His advice in "How Do They Conduct Class" is drawn from faculty who lecture as well as faculty who conduct seminar-style classes, and he draws the same conclusions for each.  He explains how faculty can create a natural critical learning environment by:

1. asking an intriguing question or introducing a problem
2. helping students understand the significance of the question
3. engaging students in higher order thinking, asking them to explain their own thinking, and challenging them to defend their explanations (in a caring way, Bains points out, not in a cross-examination!)

Even in a lecture, he explains, faculty follow this process.  Instead of emphasizing the answer, they ask questions, build connections, make an argument, and end with more questions!   "In all...students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again" before facing a test or other summative evaluation.  Students learn by doing.

Doug Lemov's book has inspired teachers in public schools but in a different manner.  Just like many of the "tips for college teaching" books, he identifies the 49 techniques that help students be successful and prepare for college.  His success, though, is based on a systematic study and implementation on the tips that are most crucial, most central to good teaching.  Many of these (with some adjustment) apply to higher education as well. 

I use the "cold call" as a staple (technique #22).  Ask a question, pause, and then call a student by name (randomly).  Progress from simple to more difficult questions.  If there are students in your room who are struggling, ask them questions that help build confidence.  Follow one answer with a question to another student, for further elaboration.  In a large room, keep names in front of you and call out for answers.  If a student isn't answering after some 'wait time', instruct that student to confer with peers and then answer.  By keeping track of who is called, even students in the back row will realize that they are expected to answer.

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