As If Teaching Mattered: On “Quick” Fixes and Slow Professional Development

In my work for the Center for Teaching and Learning, my colleague and I have lately been on what she’s called our “active learning junket.”

We’ve been designing a lot of workshops with this edu-buzzword in the title. And people tend to show up for them in a way that they might not show up for something called “Student-Centered Learning,” or “Constructivist Teaching.”

That makes sense. Active learning has gotten a lot of media attention lately, and think pieces that decry or defend the lecture model have been everywhere in the last few years (including on this podcast, for which I was briefly a research intern). Some people want to learn more about the practice. And many of our attendees are already active learning experts interested in picking up some more tips or meeting like-minded faculty.

We do get occasional push-back, though, and that’s to be expected. Some instructors (and students, for that matter) find the techniques that we demonstrate to be too “game-like.” Some instructors worry that departments or students will think that they’re not doing their jobs if they set the conditions for collaborative learning (with significant guidance) instead of explicitly lecturing. Many instructors have been burned by shoddily executed group work when they were students, or experienced life-changing lectures that inspired them to go into the field in the first place. Many worry, also, that adopting more active strategies will prevent them from covering all of the material that they’re supposed to cover on a department-mandated syllabus.

I could write separate blog posts elaborating on what the research (and my own teaching experiences) have to say about all of these things (and more!). But the concern that I don’t have a good answer for — or, a satisfying answer, I should say — has to do with the time and commitment that it takes to employ more active strategies.

Last week, near the middle of a demonstration of Guided Discovery, an instructor raised her hand.

“This is great and all,” she said, signaling that it wasn’t actually. “But how am I supposed to actually do this in my own class? This will take forever!”

I gave her an inadequate answer.

I walked her through my planning process, told her that there are lot of resources available online (which there are) if you have access to the right keywords, and assured her that we could help at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

But I didn’t answer the actual question she was asking. Or acknowledge how right she was in her assertion. And that’s because I’m still figuring out how to give that answer.

This will take forever.

She’s right, it will.

And she’ll be undercompensated if she decides to try it. And she might be told by a (male) colleague — someone who has never formally studied teaching or learning — that she really could be “more like a stand-up comedian” than a facilitator. And it’s likely that it won’t matter very much for her career advancement, that pursing additional certification will be a dead end. Some students might resent it, finding it less “rigorous” than their other classes because they’ve come to equate learning with incomprehensibility. It might even make it harder to get a job or to finish a dissertation.

Learning more strategies for teaching and learning will not only be unrecognized: it will be actively discouraged.

Learning takes forever, and teachers are forever learning how to teach. Teaching and learning (and measuring efficacy) are intensely complicated processes that deserve much, much more time, energy, respect, resources, and thought than institutions give to them. I say this with no shade to my own institution, which is, in some small way, trying to make some of this space and time and respect and energy by offering some resources like this workshop.

But it takes time. It just does. Teaching and learning isn’t quick or easy. It can be fun, immensely rewarding, even life-affirming. But it takes forever.

As of this year, I’ve been tutoring, or teaching, or facilitating teacher development, or writing material or curriculum, or a mixture of these things for nearly a decade. I’ve put in a lot of time researching, talking, attending workshops and trainings and conferences, designing stuff, reading stuff, teaching and revising lesson plans, and observing other teachers — both new and experienced. It’s not like I started thinking about constructivism last week. And I still think it’s hard. I still get nervous before I teach a teaching workshop or a class. I still rework my sessions, and stuff still comes up that stumps me or makes me think about something differently than I did last week. I still spend too much time lesson planning only to throw out the plan when an interesting question or discussion topic or distressed face pops up.

That’s why teaching is fun. But that’s also why it’s not fast.

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