learning how to teach – are you a North Korea, Japan, Madagascar, or the US?
One of the most time-consuming (but big-impact*) responsibilities of an academic is teaching. However, graduate school training for teaching can vary. At some institutions, an academic-in-training may teach his/her own course right away. This trial by fire approach can be all-consuming for the first course preps.
At other institutions, an academic-in-training can closely observe experienced instructors and learn tricks of the trade as a teaching assistant. Serving as a (in Ivy Tower-speak) teaching fellow for a large, popular intro to sociology class, I learned how colleague David J. Frank introduced groupwork, cold-called names, and demonstrated how to apply various theoretical perspectives using a game he called “Stump the Professor.” Under the mentorship of Peter V. Marsden, I learned how to grade. Both of us scored papers independently and then compared our scores for inter-rater reliability; we then reconciled the few disparate scores after a discussion. From Richard J. Hackman, I learned how to use stories (and humor) to illustrate phenomena, as well as how to refine lesson plans and exercises.
As a professor, I still observe colleagues’ teaching, which has introduced me to techniques for teaching student teams. Meetings and conversations with colleagues are also opportunities to trade tips and troubleshoot scenarios.
Over the years, I’ve also read various books on teaching and followed discussion threads on teaching at the CHE forum. A few weeks ago, I read Dan Spalding‘s recently published second edition How to Teach Adults (creative commons licensed e-book version here, yay!). His book is an excellent guidebook to teaching, covering the gamut of how to construct lesson plans, how to deal with difficult behaviors in the classroom, and how to set up a professional identity as an educator. Drawing on his experiences teaching English as another language to immigrants, Spalding offers handy checklists and tips that can improve the teaching experience for novice and master instructors alike. For instance, the book discusses the concept of student comfort zones, and the author provides a handy metaphor for how students must “exercise” outside of class for the fullest benefit of education.
Spalding’s approach is thoughtfully provocative. To wit, he compares teaching styles with governance:
Below is a list of countries and the different types of teaching they correspond
with. Which is yours?*
North Korea: A tyrannical regime led by a distant autocrat.
Classroom: A teacher who ruthlessly enforces arbitrary rules.
Japan: A corrupt democracy where most citizens still enjoy a good standard
Classroom: A bad teacher who gives everyone an ‘A.’
Madagascar: A weak state where the people live mostly independent from
Classroom: A teacher who gives suggestions to students who are free to
take or leave them.
United States: A nominal democracy where corporate interests hold almost
Classroom: A teacher who insists they listen to students but ends up doing
whatever the administration says.
*Hopefully, your class is like none of these countries!
In his final chapter, Spalding raises the larger context of the corporatization of education. He also discusses alienation amongst students and instructors and how institutions train for certain dispositions,** followed by the call to consider the transformative possibilities of teaching.
In short, Spalding’s book systematically shares the nuts and bolts of teaching while including a critical perspective of the vocation and its associated institutions. An insightful, must-read for educators!
** Marx/Weber/your favorite theorists are sometimes not credited by the author but are recognizable.