Friday, February 13, 2015

Everybody Teaches

The last few years the big puzzle for me about teaching and learning has been how to introduce high touch approaches in a way where they can make a difference overall, while doing so at a big public research university like Illinois, where resources devoted to instruction are scarcer than at comparable private universities and highly selective liberal arts colleges.  Given the resource scarcity, efficiency would seem to dictate lots of one-on-many forms of instruction. And to the extent that going to college means assembling such and such many credit hours in so and so discipline, that is mainly what you get, particularly when the discipline is popular and thus has lots of students who major in it.  Likewise, Gen Ed courses are frequently taught in a one-on-many manner.  Economists would refer to this favoring of a one-on-many approach as optimizing on the extensive margin.

At issue is what happens on the intensive margin.  How much do students actually learn?  Can they themselves determine that they are growing intellectually as a consequence of the classes they take?  In other words, it isn't just particular content mastery that's on the table.  It is also, perhaps more importantly, whether the students have been able to hone their learning-to-learn skills and their abilities to communicate.  I dare say that one-on-many approaches might be fine for teaching particular content knowledge.  But when much of the formal education is done in this manner that has some cumulative effect, dulling the students to care about their own intellectual growth and encouraging them to be too passive about how they go about studying outside the classroom and participating in the classroom.

The argument, then, for some some amount of high touch is to counteract this cumulative effect and thereby encourage the students to be more self-directed in their learning, tasking themselves regarding what they should learn and how they should go about doing that, rather than relying on their instructors to do that.  In a high touch approach, tasking the student is not the primary instructor job, though it may happen some at a broad strokes level.  Rather, much of what the instructor does is to respond to the student, commenting on the work the student has produced or reacting to an idea the student has offered up.  And with that response most of it should not be of the thumbs up or thumbs down variety.  Instead, it should be probing about possible further questions to ask, issues to consider, or to indicate places where the instructor didn't understand what the student was driving at.  The student needs to learn about the implications of the student's own formative thinking and the instructor's role is to help make those implications visible to the student.

But students may become uncomfortable getting this sort of feedback, especially early on.  Heretofore getting such feedback has been outside the range of experience, so the student will find the feedback unusual.  Further, this sort of feedback implicitly raises the bar,  because it implies an expectation that the students can get deeper into the subject matter.  A student may very well feel that achieving such depth is beyond the student's capacity.  High touch teaching then prods the student to struggle through this discomfort, both by direct coaching of the student in how greater depth can be achieved and by showing the students that somebody knowledgeable cares about the student's learning in this manner.

In contrast, one-on-many instruction, which can be done well to present the content to be mastered, simply is incapable of showing the instructor cares about whether a particular student learns deeply or not.  The cumulative effect I referred to above is in part a sense developed by the student that nobody else cares whether the student learns.  Instead, a diet of courses comprised mainly of one-on-many teaching conveys that learning is entirely the student's responsibility.  It is my experience that many undergraduates, including those who are obviously quite bright, are too immature to live up to that responsibility.  If the institution understands that its role is to nurture the students to become responsible adults, it must share in the responsibility for the students' learning.

One other aspect of high touch approaches that bears comment is that the touch is bi-directional.  The teacher learns a lot about the student, via the back and forth that the two have together.  This sort of learning in the other direction is assessment of the highest order, anecdotal though it may be because it is based on the instructor's impression of the student as it emerges from ordinary interactions.  And, as the instructor develops such impressions about each student, the instructor gets a sense of the class as a whole.  Through that the instructor can see where the current teaching approach is working and where it might be improved via suitable modification.  This is a much more holistic way to consider assessment of teaching than how we do things now with course evaluation, which perhaps is useful as documentation for promotion and tenure, though I have my doubts about that, but it clearly is not very helpful for improving instruction.  Course evaluation is a bolt-on survey of the students given near the end of the semester, the completion of which impacts the students themselves not a wit.  The high touch approach I've sketched above, in contrast, matters to both the students and the instructor alike.

Since high touch teaching is labor intensive, particularly if some of it happens via student writing and instructor response to that writing, here I'm not referring to drafts of a term paper but rather to weekly blogging where the student can be more forthcoming about the student's formative thinking, it can only happen in a small class setting.  Otherwise, the instructor workload would be unmanageable.  However, one should not assume the converse, that high touch will happen just because the class size is small.  Nor should one assume that high touch can happen mainly via in class discussion.

An instructor can embrace a lecture approach in a small class that allows for only a little bit of back and forth with the students.  Further, as I wrote several years ago in a post entitled Teaching Quiet Students, even in a class that is seminar-like and thus features class discussion, typically a few of the students will dominate that discussion and the rest will not chime in.  I've learned since writing that post that some students are eager listeners and report getting a lot out of the session even though they never raise their hands.  But then the touch is not bi-directional.  The instructor can't tell, unless subsequently told by the student, whether the student is listening intently or has actually zoned out of the discussion entirely.  One reason for the writing, then, is to make every student an active contributor to an ongoing class conversation, where that contribution is evident both to the instructor and to the student's classmates.

Everybody Teaches, the title of my post, is meant as a slogan, to connote a considerable institutional embrace of high touch approaches in instruction.  Everybody Teaches should be done in a variety of different contexts.  In the next several posts I plan to illustrate some of the possible ways Everybody Teaches might happen that seem evident to me now.

A big part of Everybody Teaches should be done as a way to reconsider current institutional practice.  During a pilot phase where an Everybody Teaches alternative is tried out, both forms of practice will co-exist.  If the pilot produces promising results, the ramp up beyond the pilot will coincide with the reduction in scale and scope of the older practice, perhaps eventually with the complete phasing out of the older practice.  This much of Everybody Teaches should be budget neutral, at least as a long term proposition.  (The pilot part and its evaluation will likely require the expenditure of one-time funds to initiate and conduct the experiment.)

But there is a different part of Everybody Teaches that will require additional resources, so I want to briefly make the case for doing that here and then close.   A much longer and detailed argument to this effect can be found in my post from a couple of years ago, The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1s.  The argument begins by noting that there are some high touch approaches already in place.  The institution's embrace of undergraduate research offers one prominent example.  The argument is that the elite students on campus disproportionately consume those high touch options that are available.  This is how it has always been, since I started on Campus back in 1980  (and probably long before that as well.)

A lottery approach to high touch makes sense in a low tuition environment.  It makes less and less sense, however, as real tuition (tuition adjusted for inflation) rises.  The more typical student and their families then have to ask is the university still offering the student a good value proposition.  In order for the answer to that question to continue to be yes, some instructional resources have to be redirected toward the typical student.  If the answer to that question starts to become no, and then for an increasingly large fraction of the student body, the university risks that an important revenue source will begin to dry up.  Everybody Teaches is meant to convey that the university understands this challenge and in response it is all hands on deck to rise up and meet it.

No comments: