What leads us to change our teaching so it departs from how we were taught?

A feedback slip at a recent faculty teaching workshop I ran asked the title question of me personally. Some thoughts:
1. A colleague who shifted during graduate school from ecology to science education studied science faculty who made a big change in their teaching (towards being more interactive, activity-based, etc.). He concluded, as I recall it, that each person had their own biographical reasons–there were no generalizations.
2. I have often found myself saying that I haven’t systematically looked at my own development as a teacher. I don’t have a coherent narrative to offer anyone else.
3. It is the case that I have tried to articulate my guiding themes ever since I had to prepare material for reappointment/promotion reviews. Doing this made me, in turn, more conscious of what I was doing (see http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/portfolio05.html and precursors).
4. But being reviewed may not be the explanation — indeed, colleagues advised me to focus on publications because teaching doesn’t really count. At about the same time, I had stumbled into being the advisor for graduate students teaching writing-intensive seminars (because I had started such teaching for extra $$ one summer). In that role, I observed their classes and had to invent ways of reflecting back what I saw — some of my themes about teaching arose from doing that. From that experience I convened a “teaching co-op,” in which faculty and grad. students observed each other’s classes.
5. But commenting on the teaching of colleagues may not be the explanation, given that I had already instituted a practice some years earlier of having students take turns to stay after class and give feedback.
…and so on.
6. I think a key connecting strand here is that my research has always been about problematic boundaries of complex situations and I have sought and made use of opportunities to teach interdisciplinary courses about life and environmental sciences in their social contexts. This teaching gave me the chance — or made it a necessity — to formulate my own distinctive interdisciplinary themes. In short, reflection on my teaching practice was less some virtuous approach to teaching and more something I had to do intellectually.
(More thinking, remembering, reflecting is needed here…)


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

3 Responses to What leads us to change our teaching so it departs from how we were taught?

  1. Teryl says:

    How wonderful for sharing! You must have been so energized to teach writing and learn about it in the context of the very different participants. If only that had been on video like CEs, looked like a great blending of process and dialogue on it. You had some connecting insights for me in the title question asked as well. Do teachers adapt to what everyone else needs? In what ways do we systematically acknowledge practice and reasons for preferences and abilities? You noted you don’t have a narrative–is it helpful to keep track of the teaching moves out of a comfort zone or to study of what that is or is that too much self-focus instead of just doing? Thanks for the reflection.

  2. About “too much self-focus instead of just doing”:
    In Raymond Williams’s 1985 novel, Loyalties, (as described at the end of my 2005 book, Unruly Complexity):
    “When the middle-aged Gwyn and elderly Norman finally meet, Norman pushes Gwyn to acknowledge that his scientific career has taken him away from his birthplace and enabled him to see more about ways the world is changing than people who remained in the Welsh towns. Political involvement, Norman argues, cannot be a simple matter of Gwyn staying loyal to his roots. Given the “powerful forces” that shape social and environmental change, we can “in intelligence” grapple with them “by such means as we can find” and take a deliberate path of action, but “none of us, at any time, can know enough, can understand enough, to avoid getting much of it wrong” (357-8). Or, in the words of Norman’s close intellectual and political colleague, Monkey Pitter, if we “go on saying the things we learned to say and it will be just strange talk, in a strange land” (161).”

  3. Teryl says:

    What if internet connectivity takes us away from really seeing how we are changing rather than the world? In going back to the areas where I once lived, I see the changes in landmarks and family while they exclaim about me and where I live when they visit. It doesn’t necessarily happen in our education landscape or mapping. Your one respondent stated, “teaching doesn’t really count.” Then does this mean learning and taking stock don’t either? I think we risk a mutual blindness to the familiar as we think it is–whether the traveler and the home bound. This growing disconnect and imperceptibly “becoming strangers in our own strange land” could lead to grappling with powerful forces –including the fight against our unrecognizable selves. How can we authentically branch out from our past, but stay grounded in something of it, even if it too is changing and becoming unknown when we look back with an inevitably changing lens?
    I am trying to understand if the quotes you have argue for seeing the world to see yourself, to just do something different even if it seems disloyal or rootless, to not be rote mistake makers but learned, deliberate ones or to unlearn what we think we should say to learn to say what is real communication. (One of the reasons I didn’t become an English major is that I often miss the meaning in literature for something else I think the writing says.)

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