Learning How to Teach: Beyond Recipes

Advertisement in the Ladies Home Journal (1925) (public domain)

An article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education last week is still making its rounds on social media. “Changing Your Teaching Takes More Than a Recipe” đź”’ is also circulating under the subtitle “Professors Have Been Urged to Adopt More-Effective Teaching Practices. Why Are Their Results So Mixed?”

In this essay, Beckie Supiano claims that a gap exists between what theorists and researchers propose when they describe the pedagogy of “active learning” and what often happens when college professors try to implement it. She argues that this gap exists partly because well-meaning instructors adopt classroom activities they’ve heard about without understanding how—or why—these activities work.

So far, I’ve seen two ways of misreading (or correctly half-reading) the article.

First, some readers seem to be interpreting the essay as yet another criticism of higher education’s general failure to train its teachers to teach. That’s how I interpret, for example, this tweet from a self-described “education futurist,” Bryan Alexander. (He accurately quotes an early paragraph in the article that I see as basically a bit of throat-clearing.)

That graduate school rarely involves a full preparation for teaching is both true and, in this context, not illuminating. Supiano is writing mostly about instructors who are receiving at least some formal pedagogy training, after they start teaching if not before.

The other misreading I’ve seen of Supiano’s article focuses on its “recipe” metaphor without following the author’s logic all the way to the end.

That’s how I see this tweet from the sociologist Kieran Healy, with whom—let me be clear—I tend to sympathize in conversations like this.

I suspect Healy shares some of my background frustration, for example, over the way contemporary pedagogy discourse reflexively disparages “sage-on-a-stage” teaching, or what Supiano calls the “transmission” model of instruction, without offering reliably better alternatives or recognizing that traditional teaching methods have an important role to play.

(For example, I have written here about a study that supposedly discredited college lectures, in which, as I discovered, lectures were actually integral to the active learning condition the researchers tested. And more recently, I’ve revealed my appreciation for the work of a college professor who worked directly from a traditional textbook, which he had co-written himself. Heedless rejection of traditional “transmission” methods is deeply annoying to me, as well as harmful to students.)

But I think Healy, like Alexander, may be reacting to the first part of Supiano’s article without considering how it fits into her larger argument.

Because when you carefully read the article to its conclusion, I think you may find that its real point is that professors need to learn to cook, not just to follow recipes (which they may not really understand).

Allow me to quote extensively from several places in the article, focusing on this idea:

Much like a home cook who didn’t catch the bit about boiling the lasagna noodles first or whisking constantly while mixing a roux, professors who miss a key step in a student-centered teaching practice are unlikely to see the desired results. If they can’t figure out what went wrong, they may be left with the idea that this dish just isn’t any good. …

In higher ed, teaching is often seen as something anyone who knows the content can automatically do. But the evidence suggests instead that teaching is an intellectual exercise that adds to subject-matter expertise.

This teaching-specific … knowledge, the researchers note, could be acquired in teacher preparation or professional development, however, it’s usually created on the job. As a result, it’s tightly aligned with a professor’s teaching approach. …

One set of solutions would shift professional development to focus more on establishing a foundational knowledge of teaching and learning. …

Erika Offerdahl, associate vice provost and director of the Transformational Change Initiative at Washington State University, says she’s recently started approaching faculty professional development differently. ‘Fifteen years ago I would have been much more apt to come in and try to convince [professors] to care about teaching, and then give them a set of strategies they can try in their classroom, and then meet up with them later to help them refine their strategies to be more effective,’ says Offerdahl, who also conducts discipline-based education research in biology.

‘Now, I’m much more apt to help them develop a deeper understanding of how people learn from a neuroscientific and cognitive-psychology perspective, and have them develop a model for how students learn.’ This, Offerdahl says, enables professors to choose a particular active-learning approach that works in their own teaching context.

In other words, although Supiano does suggest that professors may need more training in how to implement specific teaching practices, the real upshot of her article is that professors need more opportunities to reflect on what learning means in their own disciplinary contexts.

Rather than follow recipes more faithfully, in other words, we need to be learning how to write them.

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