Tuesday, November 08, 2005


It is not uncommon in teaching for the instructor to deliver a lecture for the bulk of the period and then ask at the end, “are there any questions?” Frequently the response is an awkward silence and then after a bit the instructor dismisses the class and laments, “they just don’t talk up.” Ten years ago when I was getting started with learning technology, getting them to talk up was the prime reason for going to asynchronous conferencing, and the mantra for some was “students who are quiet in class will express themselves online.” There may be some truth to that. But I don’t want to overplay the case.

Instead I want to ask whether the instructor, perhaps unwittingly, is really communicating with body language and teaching approach that she doesn’t want to have students ask questions at all. I believe that the method of inquiry the instructor adopts matters in who speaks up. Giving clear and repeated affirmations that an open dialog is desired is necessary to get students to talk in class.

The last time I taught, without much planning at all but armed with the advice to conduct the class as a seminar, I tried to hold the class session much as we do committee meetings within the IT organization. There were only 15 students and me but we were in a room that accommodated 90, with the seats arranged in columns and rows. I made a point of rearranging the seating so we sat in a semi-circle near the front of the room. The idea was first that everyone in the class should be able to see everyone else’s face, no heads behind other heads, and second that if we needed to see the blackboard or the projector screen, that was in front of everyone so nobody had to turn around. Setting this up at the beginning of the semester was a little uncomfortable at first, but soon the kids figured it out and helped with the seating configuration themselves. There is no doubt in my mind that making a thing about the seating is one dimension of conveying to the students that the instructor wants them to speak up.

Another important concern is the tone in which the class is conducted. Truthfully, I’ve spent more time in meetings over the last few years than I have in the classroom and so I led the class in a manner that I was used to from the meetings. I tried to treat the students as colleagues and then give them opportunities to speak up throughout the session. Directed questions during the session were helpful. Showing the instructor has weaknesses (I’m not talking about demonstrating incompetence, I mean the instructor showing a human side) also mattered.

In the case of this class it didn’t really happen the first day, or even the first couple of weeks. They had to find their comfort zone. I had hostile looks from some of them, because it wasn’t a style they were used to. So there has to be persistence in a good natured way and, I think this part is critical, when they do talk up there has to be a way to react that shows the instructor is listening to them. Too often in other class settings the student questions and comments are dismissed too early – they are not framed right or the questions seem trivial to the instructor. That may be true, but the ultimate goal is not to answer the particular question. It is to get the students to feel comfortable and open up. And that requires both listening and reacting in a way that the students want to say more.

In a small class setting this is possible. I believe not enough instructors when given the chance to teach in that setting make the effort to encourage the students to speak up, mostly out of fear of losing control of the agenda, also out of ignorance in knowing how to proceed. That is a shame, especially with experienced instructors. But for junior faculty this is not a surprising outcome at all. Teaching can be frightening because the instructor’s weaknesses are readily exposed. Listening, really listening, requires overcoming that fear. It isn’t easy.

In a large class setting, it may be possible, but I’m less sure about it. Technology, particularly “clickers,” may be helpful in allowing the instructor to be more responsive to the students. Active learning exercises give students the opportunity to speak up with peers and to engage in problem solving activity. But those activities must be meaningful in the context of the class and from my point of view the approach too often encourages “quick hitter” solutions rather than more penetrating investigation because of the time constraints. In settings where the quick hitter is appropriate, I do believe the instructor can demonstrate she wants real dialog in the large class setting. Otherwise, practical necessity will dictate a mostly presentation approach in the classroom with perhaps some dialog online.

I want to take these observations and apply them to another setting. My university is in the midst of a major strategic planning process initiated by our still in his honeymoon phase new president, B. Joseph White. We started with a structure that he provided and some overview documents from that. There are now draft plans from each of the campuses. These are available at the President’s site. Still to come, there will be plans at the college and department levels.

There has been a lot of work within the administration to gather information for the current drafts and put the contributions into a passable form. But because we’re not used to strategic planning this way, the process seems hurried and clunky. The plans at the various levels are supposed to be pictures taken at various elevations with the same fundamental view, the President’s documents at the 100,000 foot level, and the department plans near to the ground. But our process has been to start from outer space and move to the ground, not vice versa. I hope before the process comes to a conclusion there is some of the reverse. But there have been discussions on the sidelines that have said if somehow the campus level plan doesn’t have a place holder for some department’s item, then that item won’t be included when the department plans emerge.

This puts many of the faculty who have yet to participate in the process in the same position as the students who having sat through the bulk of the class period listening to the instructor lecture are then asked for questions at the last moment. Certainly, there has been faculty cynicism about the process. That is not news. The issue is whether well after the fact the process continues to be perceived as too top down and hence too removed from the concerns of the faculty.

In spite of these concerns, I want to applaud President White for taking this approach and for encouraging others to put in the energy to make us think hard about where we are and where we want to be going. It is critical that we do this. And, certainly, there is no perfect process to encourage a serious discussion on these issues. Further, I do believe that President White, because of who he is and that the strategic planning is his first big activity, still has a substantial amount of goodwill that can readily overcome the current issues with the strategic planning process.

But this will require some change. Though I'm sure there is the urge to get these plans out to the Board of Trustees and to potential donors, I hope President White is wise enough to see that a wooden approach to the planning process will bring about the enmity of the entire university community and ultimately will cause the outcome none of us want to see – the University of Illinois as a mediocre institution, one that didn’t adjust to the changes and pressures that all of public higher education is now facing.

The lesson to learn is simple to describe but hard to deliver………. Écoutez.

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