“The point is this: If you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?”
- Most of us have received at one time or another an email with this story of the Philosophy professor who first fills up an empty jar with big rocks, and subsequently keeps filling it with pebbles, gravel, sand, water, etc. to illustrate to his stunned students that life’s about priorities. What are the most important things in your life? Which are those big rocks that need enough room before the smaller and less critical stuff comes in? Make sure you put in the big rocks first, because they won’t fit once the jar is full of sand!
Teaching pretty much works the same way. We might all have our favorite big rocks, what we like to prioritize when we decide on how we will prepare a course: “I want to cover this topic” or “I will go through these exercises at the blackboard”. That’s often based on personal preference and that’s fine, of course. But the problem (i.e., not-so-effective teaching) comes when the biggest rock of them all, that ought to be in the bottom of everyone’s jar, is missing. This rock could be labeled “GOALS“, for both teaching goals —what do I want to achieve with my teaching— and learning goals —what do I want my students to learn. That indeed, and not the textbook you will use or the slides you will design, ought to be that fat rock in your teaching jar, or the first thing your think about when planning a course.
- Everything else that you need to prepare for a course will find their own space in relation to your big “GOAL” rock. In that sense, designing a course goes backwards: It is what you want your students to be able to do at the end of the course that determines what, how, and why you will teach. Perhaps that “backward design” approach sounds basic, but “it’s a radical departure from the default method of syllabus construction in which we cram the books we’ve already ordered into the available weeks of the [teaching term]“, says Aeron Haynie, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay who recently converted to the practice.
Or maybe regardless of how basic backward design may or may not sound, it could seem quite frankly unrealistic, because it will take too much time. Well, at first, it will surely need some adjustments in your thinking habits. Fortunately, many resources are available to supporting you in backward designing your courses. Check out this tip sheet or its more extended version released by Stanford University. Here are also some useful questions to help you start the process.
- One pleasant thing you might discover is that spending more time ahead to think about the goals will save you a lot of time on the long run. For example, one common realization by adopters of backward design practices is that chapters and slides that don’t really address the GOALS can easily be suppressed or given as homework, extra reading, etc. So there are often actually less slides to prepare, particularly if you start incorporating more active learning to fulfill your goals. It should then come to no surprise that “Working backwards from goals to tasks” is actually number 1 on this list of “7 things highly productive people do”.
Happy backward design for 2012!
Watch Peter Agre celebrate the science teachers during his speech at the Nobel banquet in 2003
Peter Agre at Aarhus University on September 9, 2011
Distinguished guest tomorrow Friday at Aarhus University, Professor Peter Agre from the Johns Hopkins University has not forgotten the importance of his teachers in helping him shape his knowledge and eventually win the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Together with fellow laureate Roderick MacKinnon from the Rockefeller University, they reminded us that “early in the life of every scientist, a child’s first interest in science was sparked by a teacher“.
During this 3-minute long opening of the Nobel banquet dinner in 2003, they further encouraged people in the assistance to join them in “not applauding the Nobel laureates, but in celebrating the heroes of past, present, and future Nobel prizes; the men and women who teach science to the children in our schools”.
A much needed reminder of the critical need for strong, student-centered, and coherent education at times of worldwide crisis with more unsuspected blows.
Do we know how students are learning? Can we systematize which ways are better than others at promoting learning?
As part of our reflection on teaching, it is important to remember that teaching (what we teach) is really about learning (what students learn). Learning more about learning has become a major focus area in higher education. Results from these investigations—such as that reviewed in How people learn—summarized key findings that stemmed from research in education, neuroscience, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and anthropology. In particular, spending a lot of time on a single task (like memorizing) does not promote effective learning. To develop learning with understanding, students need to be actively engaged and guided by their instructors.
Research-based “active learning” strategies exist that enable students to master > 70% of the key concepts for any topic (regardless of class size and institution) compared to only < 30% in traditional courses. Such active learning happens as part of a scientific approach to teaching that proposes to address teaching with the same rigor and intellectual investment (critical thinking and creativity) as any other scientific discipline.
Classroom response devices, also known as “clickers”, are a great tool to support scientific teaching. Not only do they favor learning by breaking the monotony of a presentation, but, more importantly, they allow the instructor to monitor the reasoning that gets their students to chose a particular answer among four or five possibilities. In short, clicker questions are a gateway to advance expert-like thinking, which is what learning with understanding is all about.
A corollary to scientific teaching is that good teaching no longer comes from a select few and typically isolated “gifted instructors”, but from any instructor who has acquired “a deep understanding of the structure and epistemologies of their disciplines, combined with knowledge of the kinds of teaching activities that will help students come to understand the discipline for themselves” (How people learn, p151).
Stay tuned for more on scientific teaching in future posts.
The post below is from guest blogger Aino Corry from the Department of Computer Science at Aarhus University.
I have a confession; I have not really reflected on my teaching before…
I thought I had, but it turns out I haven’t, really, deeply, reflected on my teaching. Now, what made me come to this conclusion? Well, first and foremost I had a taste of peer supervision (more on this in another blog post), which made me look at my teaching through the eyes of peers. That was a major eye opener for me. Another thing was reading about reflection in order to write my teaching portfolio.
What is the motivation to reflect on your teaching? That it will improve your teaching? That it will enable others to learn from your experiences? Or, that you will be able to see your own progress? Or, perhaps just that you need some reflection to get tenure? All of these are valid reasons for reflecting on your teaching. Professor Jack C. Richards explains in his paper Towards Reflective Teaching how reflection on your teaching can help you grow as a teacher. His claim is that most teachers find their own ways of coping with teaching issues in the classroom as a response to given situations. That is, they build a set of strategies during the lecture, instead of taking the time needed to reflect over their teaching outside of the classroom.
The reflection in itself goes through three stages; The event itself, Recollection of the event, and review and response to the event. There are numerous strategies for implementing these three stages, one of them is the aforementioned peer supervision, which is also briefly explained in the paper by Jack Richards.
One of the reflections I have done in creating this post, was when reading ProDAIT – Professional Development for Academics involved in Teaching, a web site with advice on how to improve your teaching. One of their pages is on methods for hunting assumptions, in which I found an assumption I have always had and applied in my teaching style: “It’s common sense to visit small groups after you’ve set them a task, since this demonstrates your commitment to helping them learn. Visiting groups is an example of respectful, attentive student-centred teaching.” Read more on why this is not always true. Although they might not be entirely right about this, it did make me recollect some teaching events from my past and review them.
In conclusion, reflective teaching is time-consuming, but our current teaching experience can only take us so far in our scholarship in teaching. To become a really good teacher, you need to reflect.