About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Teaching: The Missing Ingredient in College Success

            We are hearing a lot these days about the need to help students persist in college and increase their rates of graduation. Oddly, teaching gets limited mention in these discussions.

            A somewhat abridged version of this post was originally published in the Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2013/0322/Time-to-help-college-professors-be-better-teachers) and reprinted in the UTNE Reader online (http://www.utne.com/politics/time-to-help-college-professors-become-better-teachers.aspx).


            Right after I gave my opening lecture on Oedipus the King to the thirty employees of Los Angeles’s criminal justice system, I handed out a few pages of notes I would have taken if I were sitting in their seats listening to the likes of me. The students ranged from gang-intervention workers to traffic cops to a few detectives, and they were in a special program leading to a college degree.

            My course was Introduction to Humanities, and I knew from a survey I gave them that many hadn’t been in a classroom in a long time—and some didn’t get such great educations when they were. So we spent the last half hour of the class comparing my notes with the ones they had just taken, talking about the way I signaled that something was important, how they could separate out a big idea from specific facts, how to ask a question without looking like a dummy.

            I taught that humanities course over thirty years ago, but I was thinking about it as I read the new report from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, “College Completion Must Be Our Priority,” a call to leaders in higher education to increase graduation rates by scheduling courses and services to accommodate working adults, developing more on-line learning, easing the ability of students to transfer, and a host of other sensible solutions to the many barriers that are contributing to stagnating graduation rates.

            But if we want more students to succeed in college, then we have to turn full attention to teaching. Students spend more time with their teachers than with all other institutional agents combined, and as a community college administrator I know puts it, students succeed one class at a time. To their credit, the authors of the college completion report call for better professional development for college faculty; however, most reports of this type have little to say about teaching, focusing instead on structural and administrative reforms outside the classroom. It is a glaring omission.

            Perhaps the authors of these reports believe that teaching is such an individual activity that not much can be done to affect it. Another reason has to do with the way college teaching gets defined in practice. Faculty become expert in a field and then they pass on their knowledge to others in introductory or higher-level courses. Some teachers get very good at this delivery—compelling lectures, creative demonstrations and assignments—but it is rare that a teacher thinks beyond her subject to the general intellectual development of the undergraduates before her, to enhancing the way they learn and make sense of the world. Finally, I don’t see much evidence at the policy level of a deep understanding of teaching or a respect for its craft.

            The problem starts in the graduate programs where college instructors are minted. Students learn a great deal about, let’s say, astrophysics or political science, but not how to teach it. They might assist in courses and pay attention to how their professors teach, but none of this is systematic or a focus of study or mentoring. And there is no place in their curriculum where they consider the difficulties students might have as they learn how to think like an astrophysicist or political scientist or the reading and writing difficulties that can emerge when encountering a discipline for the first time. The same is true in acquiring a trade. People are trained to be diesel mechanics or cosmetologists or nurses but not to teach their occupations.

            The majority of new college faculty want to teach well—and many do. But they won’t find on most college campuses an institutional culture that fosters teaching. To be sure, there are rewards for good teaching—awards, the esteem of students—and most institutions, even research universities, consider exemplary teaching as a factor in promotion. And some campuses have programs that provide resources for instruction, but they tend to be low-status and under-utilized operations. As a community college vice president I interviewed said, “We don’t cultivate a professional identity around teaching.” In the untold number of faculty meetings I’ve attended, teaching has been discussed as part of an individual’s personnel action, but never as a general topic of interest.

            Teaching has special meaning now, as the authors of the report on student success point out, because close to half of American undergraduates are a bit more like those students in my humanities class than our image of the traditional college student fresh out of high school. Particularly in the community colleges and state colleges where the majority of Americans receive their higher education, students are older, they work, and many have children. A significant percentage are the first in their families to go to college; somewhere between forty to fifty percent need to take one or more remedial courses in English or mathematics.

            To do right by these students, we need to rethink how to teach them. This does not mean rushing to electronic technology—a common move these days—for on-line instruction of any variety will only be as good as the understanding of teaching and learning that underlies it.

            We can begin by elevating the value of teaching and creating more opportunities to get better at it—which would also mean seeing the classroom through the eyes of our new students. For those students who need help with writing, mathematics, and study skills, there are tutoring centers and other campus resources. Faculty should forge connections with them but realize that we too can provide guidance to learning our subjects, provide both tricks of the trade—like taking good notes—as well as an orientation to our field: this is the way an astrophysicist or political scientist or diesel mechanic thinks. And, in my experience, students at flagship universities and elite colleges could also benefit from this approach to instruction. Just ask them.

            Doing such things does not mean abandoning our subject area but rather enhancing it and opening a door to it. It is through our subjects that students can come to better learn how to learn and how to think scientifically, politically, or mechanically.

            Working with those humanities students on their notes helped them develop better notetaking techniques. But as we studied technique, we also thought hard about how to determine what’s important—and how to make someone else’s information your own. All this involved talking further about Greek tragedy, about literary interpretation, and about what the humanities can provide for us.

            Finally, what’s at stake is not only increasing graduation rates but also making the acquisition of knowledge more democratic, providing a quality education for those who, a generation or two ago, would not have seen college as possible.

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  1. Moleskin notebook, a good mechanical pencil, and a decent humanist letterform. I also carry a small architect's rule and a beautiful brass English pencil-compass for geometry. Simple indeed, but enough to record anything I come across, or to explore design and ideas.