We Must Realize What We Are – And Aren’t – Teaching

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

By Dale Schlundt, M.A.

Consider the lessons one may learn without being fully aware that they are taking place. Take something simple, such as walking into a new building for the first time. With everyone you observe, your mind is giving you feedback based on a multitude of judgements. What an individual is wearing, their body language, and their responses to your gestures – all of that teaches us something in a relatively short time frame.

Some might refer to this as second nature, yet it is essentially teaching and learning without calling it either.  I have found this to be a fruitful concept from a pedagogical standpoint. How many of us actively question this point to ourselves, “What am I teaching students and what are they learning when I may not realize it’s occurring?”

Whether one is an educator in a secondary or post-secondary school, research has shown that engaging students results in increased understanding, retention of the content, and comprehensive learning. How educators promote interaction with and among their students obviously varies. Regardless of the methodologies facilitated by the instructor, such as class discussions, group projects, or others, the challenge is in addressing how much time educators allocate to allowing students to practice this interaction that has been awarded such merit.

One could suggest that we should question the correlation of two aspects in our classes on a daily basis. The first is how efficient we expect our students to be in collaborating, active listening, and making their own inferences. The question that follows is about how much time  we use for lecturing alone, essentially teaching them to do none of those skills necessary for enhanced learning. Perhaps for a majority of the semester we do lecture, only periodically allowing our students to play an active role in the class, aside from the typical Q&A. If this is the case, we may find our expectations exceeding students’ collaborative skills, as we are teaching them not to do the very thing we expect from them.

The trend toward student-centered learning continues to grow. According a UCLA Higher Education Research Institute’s report in 2014, lecturing on a large scale has continued to drop since their research began recording its use among full time faculty at four year colleges in 1989. However, the 2013-2014 research shows only 50.6 percent of the nationwide faculty surveyed still relying on lecture to a significant degree at least part of the semester. The data show improvement taking place, but not necessarily at as fast of pace as one might assume.

Of course, there is a place for lecture and class size will limit some courses to such, which is arguably why we continue to see a high percentage at universities – although most would argue it is never as effective as facilitation, where the instructor directs the conversation and infuses necessary knowledge to spur dialogue among students.  While being aware that we are teaching content through lecture, we may be unaware that we are also teaching students to forego skills such as being constructively critical, speaking, and arriving at conclusions. [1]

Many educators, myself included at times, feel as though they cannot cover enough content if not integrating lecture at least proportionately with class discussions or similar activities. It is a valid concern. That being said, if research proves those pedagogical and andragogical strategies that call for student interaction among peers to be effective, do we trade quality for quantity? The goal should be to achieve both and through adapting curriculum as well as assessments it is truly an attainable goal.

I have found that in post-secondary history courses, the relevance of the material to my students’ lives is, in most cases, sufficient in generating student discussion throughout the length of the semester. Therefore, completing the necessary content does not create an obstacle. I could be simply lucky in regards to the subject matter I teach. There is no doubt every discipline will have advantages as well as disadvantages in terms of how a class has to be structured for success. However, as with educators of all disciplines, teaching philosophies are more than theories, and require experiments in which pragmatic planning is indispensable.

Nevertheless, if someone happened to walk into a classroom when an instructor assigns students a project that required collaboration, with this being followed by looks of confusion and a lack of confidence, one would obviously question, “Why?”  The answer is clear – we do well at what we practice. As educators, we should challenge ourselves to break down into percentages the degree of emphasis and time that is realistically allocated to the skills at which we wish our students to become proficient.

Are we teaching our students how to be active learners when we have class with limited collaboration or student input? If we forego opportunities for student centered learning, then perhaps we are unwittingly proliferating confusion and minimized confidence when our students are asked to practice critical thinking in a context outside of the classroom. Aside from content, let us take note of what we are teaching our students when we don’t even realize that we are teaching them.

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Reference: [1] Eagan, M.K., Stolzenburg, E.B., Berdan Lozaon, J., Aragon, M.C., Surchard, M.R., and Hurtado, S. (2014). Undergraduate Teaching Faculty, 2013-2014 HERI Faculty Survey. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Dale Schlundt

Dale Schlundt

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College.