Gas station without pumps

2013 August 27

Classroom observation

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:35
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Bowman Dickson, who teaches math at a school in Saudi Arabia, wrote in a blog post (Observations from Observing: Methods) about a mutual observation scheme set up at his school:

For the whole year, she came to my class once a week, I went to her class once a week and then we met once a week to debrief. Sure, she tells me she learned a lot, but this was also the best professional development possible for me too. I learned so much over the course of the year and engaged in so many excellent conversations about teaching—I grew so much from a commitment of a little over an hour a week.

It makes me realize that I should have been doing this all along with a colleague, apart from the whole school appraisal process. Though it seems so easy, and I of course exchanged the common “I’d love to come visit your class” with so many colleagues, it never happened before. I think the thing that made it work with us was a structured commitment, and the formation of a habit in our schedules (it didn’t feel like something ON TOP of everything else, it was part of what I did every week).

I’ve learned a lot about teaching by sitting in on other professors’ classes, particularly faculty in disciplines different from my own. I didn’t do this primarily as professional observation, as Bowman did, but in order to learn the material the professors were teaching.

In addition to re-experiencing what it was like to be a student (a useful correction to arrogance that more faculty need every few years), I also observed teaching techniques.  How did the teacher structure the material? How was student attention maintained?  What information did the teacher get as feedback and how did they use it?  How long did teachers wait for student responses? …  I didn’t generally share my observations with the teacher (the pushback I got the one time I tried convinced me not to try again—and that was from an excellent professor who was doing a great job with one minor failing, that his exams were memorization tests of trivial factoids, not of understanding the content of the text or his lectures).

I would love to have a regular exchange observation with a teacher whose work I respected or with a colleague who really was interested in improving teaching (and not just in sucking up to a senior faculty member to improve chances of tenure).  But most of the faculty I know see teaching as a decidedly secondary part of their job—a necessary condition for being a professor, which allows them to do the research they love.  If they have a spare hour in the week, which few do, it is not likely to be spent trying to improve their teaching. It is more likely to be spent trying to catch up on the research literature or desperately writing yet another grant proposal, in the hopes that they’ll be able to fund their research group for another year.

That’s not to say that my colleagues are bad teachers—some of them are excellent teachers, some are good with the potential for being excellent, and only a rare few are poor teachers.  In some cases the excellence is tied to their research—they are brilliant people with a deep knowledge of their subject, which enables them to separate out the crucial concepts from the piles of papers and books, and present them clearly and coherently to students.  Many of them are also driven by perfectionism—they are not happy with doing a crummy job of anything, even something they see as a secondary part of their mission.  They spend a lot of time designing, preparing for, and teaching their classes, but often very little thinking about the methods they use for teaching.

I think that many of us (excellent, bad, or in between) could be better teachers if we had some time set aside for comparing, discussing, experimenting with, and just thinking about pedagogy.  But where will that time come from, in a system that is increasingly focused on how much money the faculty can bring to the University?


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