Teaching Mistake #1 – Let content dictate instructional decision making.
Marshall Gregory, an English professor at Butler University, has written a fine essay that explores the role of content in learning. In the excerpt below, he discusses why we have students learn certain content. Some discussion questions follow, which I hope will encourage you to think more about Gregory’s point and more importantly about the extent to which content influences your instructional decision-making.
“In my view, the curriculum is a means to an end, not an end in itself, which means that there is no intrinsic reason whatever that says that my students must appreciate the art, ideas, or historical position of Gray’s “Elegy” [“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray]. Once students leave my course, it is a fair bet that not a single one of them will ever again have to read or even hear a reference to eighteenth-century British poetry in their whole lives. Should I conclude that those who do not learn to love this poem, or that the unwashed crowds in other courses who will never read it at all, are somehow uneducated slobs? To think that there is some intrinsic value in learning about the “Elegy” would be to treat the curriculum as an end, not a means.
“If maximum coverage is the end of education, then there are no educated persons, because even the most deeply educated among us merely scratch at the surface of all there is to know.
“My point is that teachers who love specific kinds of content often misrepresent the kind of usefulness that content will have for most of their students. Mostly, students do not get educated because they study our beloved content. They get educated because they learn how to study our beloved content, and they carry the how of that learning with them in the world as cognitive and intellectual skills that stick long after the content is forgotten. In short, the curriculum is not an end in itself.”
Reference: Gregory, M. (2005). Turning water into wine: Giving remote texts full flavor for the audience of Friends. College Teaching
, 53 (3), 95-98.
- Do you agree with Gregory, or does the veracity of his point depend on the content? Why or why not?
- How much content is enough in a survey course for nonmajors? In an introductory course for majors? In a senior seminar?
- At what point do we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better when it comes to course content?
- What would you see as the difference between covering content and using it? Is that distinction the same thing Gregory is talking about when he proposed content should be the means not the end?
- If your students took last semester’s final three weeks into the new semester, how well would they score? To what degree would these scores be a function of how they studied? To what degree would they be a function of the instructional methods you used to teach them?
Here’s another great source that explores the difference between using
content and covering
content. Isn’t this a great title for a book? Finkel, D. L. Teaching with Your Mouth Shut
. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2000.
Teaching Mistake #2 — Make decisions about who can and can’t learn
- Do you think faculty should tell students they don’t have what it takes to major in something? Does the profession demand that professors act as gatekeepers?
- Should going to college be an opportunity for everybody? Why or why not?
- Once an institution admits a student, what obligations do they have to help that student succeed?
- Have you ever made a mistake about who will and won’t succeed in your course? Has a student you never thought would make it, ended up succeeding? What happened?
There are some old but good movies that make this point: Stand and Deliver
and Dead Poets Society
are two of my favorites. And when you despair about the caliber of students you are trying to teach, you might want to read Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary
. It is definitely a book that makes you believe everybody can learn.
Teaching Mistake #3 – Believe experience is the best teacher
Here’s an interesting quote from another of my favorite articles. “One day at the driving range, I was demonstrating my swing while remarking, ‘Practice makes perfect.’ [My golf instructor’s] disarming response was, ‘Only if you begin with a good swing. My advice to you is to either stop practicing or change your swing.’ In teaching, as in golf, repeating poor teaching mechanics can actually move us away from, not closer to, our performance objective of effective student learning.”
Whetten, D. A. “Principles of Effective Course Design: What I Wish I Had Known About Learner-Centered Teaching 30 Years Ago.” Journal of Management Education, 2007, 31 (3), 339-357.
General Discussion Questions
- What is Whetten’s quote saying about experience and how does it relate to instructional practice?
- What are the most important lessons you’ve learned from experience? Have you tested the veracity of these lessons? How? By doing what?
- Did you ever draw a conclusion from your experience in the classroom and then discover later that you’d come to the wrong conclusion?
- If you have colleagues who have drawn some questionable conclusions from their experiences, can you help them find their way to other conclusions? How? By doing what?
- Do you agree with the three items in this list? Are they mistakes?
- Which one of the mistakes is most serious? Which one is made most frequently?
- Are these the most serious mistakes college teachers make? What would your list contain, had you been asked to give a program on this topic?
- Do new teachers tend to make different mistakes than those with experience? What mistakes do new teachers make more often?
- Are the mistakes teachers make related to the kind of content they teach? For example, do math teachers make different mistakes than composition teachers?
- Teachers don’t just make mistakes. They also do many things right. If you were asked to give a talk on the three things teachers at your college or university do well, what would be on your list? Turning that question inward, what are three things you do particularly well?