Objectivity and New Techniques

Credit: iStock.com/tomertu
Credit: iStock.com/tomertu
Are we as objective as we should be about the new teaching techniques we try? The argument that we aren’t, usually put to us by researchers, goes something like this: We read, hear about, or otherwise discover a new technique. It could be a strategy or a different approach. Maybe it addresses a problem; it might develop a skill. Whatever the criteria, the new technique strikes us as a good idea. It seems doable—something we can pull off and something likely to work with our students. More directly: we like the new techniques that we decide to try.

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Are we as objective as we should be about the new teaching techniques we try? The argument that we aren’t, usually put to us by researchers, goes something like this: We read, hear about, or otherwise discover a new technique. It could be a strategy or a different approach. Maybe it addresses a problem; it might develop a skill. Whatever the criteria, the new technique strikes us as a good idea. It seems doable—something we can pull off and something likely to work with our students. More directly: we like the new techniques that we decide to try.

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With a new technique in hand, we make plans to implement it; we decide on which course to try it in and when in the course to try it. We prepare whatever is needed to execute the technique and decide how we’ll communicate about it to students. And then we implement the activity, usually with some enthusiasm, almost always with high hopes. We end up having a vested interest in its success, and that’s when something between a dense fog and a slight haze obscures our view of what happened. We quickly form opinions about how it went. Sometimes they’re informed by student feedback, but even when they aren’t, we make judgments, voicing them to ourselves and to others.

The view that we aren’t all that objective about our instructional choices has some credibility, but I don’t think selecting and implementing techniques we believe in results in an incurable bias. We can cultivate the necessary objectivity, and here are some suggestions for how:

Actually, I think an argument could be made in favor of our involvement with the new techniques we try. That case rests on the idea that caring about something nurtures a commitment to its success. You work harder to achieve that success than someone who’s objective but uninvolved. Haven’t we seen this happen when we make a change that students suggest? They want it to work and are more likely to contribute what’s needed to make it happen.

Still, there’s a caveat. We aren’t naturally objective about our teaching; we’re simply too involved, and teaching touches much of what defines and makes us unique. As a result, when we tell ourselves and others what happened with the technique, in the course, or across a career, we see matters through rose- (or some other) colored glasses. We want our teaching to look and be good. But being good—that is, for teaching to result in learning—requires looking long and hard at everything we do for students. So it’s off with the colored glasses, on with those that magnify—we need to see details in sharp focus. No hiding behind excuses, no failure avoidance, no blaming students, and no self-shaming. We’re after a singular objective: an accurate understanding of how what we tried affected efforts to learn.


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