Talking Teaching

April 24, 2010

being an academic – some days it’s like herding cats

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — alison @ 7:18 pm

I’ve had one of those weeks. Actually, I’ve had one of those semesters… You know, where you are running just to stay in one place. Sometimes I think an academic’s life is a bit like herding cats. This post isn’t intended as a whinge, but more a consideration of all the demands on our time – maybe you can weigh in on how best to balance them?

I’ve been a teacher for more years than I like to count (oh, all right then – I began secondary teaching in 1983, after completing my PhD, & returned to the tertiary system in 1992). So I know what the pressures on teachers are like. And I think that we’re lucky in the university system to have less in the way of pastoral care requirements & paperwork – for a start, there isn’t all the work surrounding moderation of internally assessed standards; we don’t write reports :-); there isn’t playground duty! On the other hand, there is the expectation that staff are also active researchers (including supervising MSc/PhD students) & that they’ll be involved to a greater or lesser extent in some form of admin.

My job’s a bit more complicated because I’m 0.5 in my teaching role & 0.5 admin in the Dean’s office. (As Associate Dean with responsibility for undergraduate students I spend a lot of time working one-on-one with students, plus attending meetings of this committee & that, plus… could go on but I won’t. I even manage to fit a bit of research in there somewhere.)

Anyway, we’re working on implementing a workload model across the institution that’s intended to make sure that everyone’s spending roughly the same amount of time on teaching, research, & admin, (less admin, more & equal amounts of the others, & room for variation depending on the individual’s role in the institution). And that’s sparked some interesting discussions.

You’ll sometimes hear it said that we ‘over-teach’ ie spend too much time on teaching. But how much is too much? How much time should you spend preparing for a one-hour lecture, for example? What if it’s a new lecture? What about all the harder-to-measure things like time spent with students out of class, or working in the e-learning environment? (I say harder-to-measure because you can’t actually predict how much demand students will make on your time in a given week or month.) And of course, there’s the marking – I still remember how much time I used to spend assessing students’ work when I was in the school system (evenings & ‘holidays’, mostly) & I don’t imagine much has changed. There’s less of that for most uni lecturers, but the assignments tend to be bigger & more demanding of time & attention.

It’s a really tricky one to answer, because – well, I think this, anyway – there is always going to be variability between teachers in how they prepare for a class. And someone who spends 15 minutes reviewing a lecture that they’ve given a few times before & don’t intend to change substantially this time round, may do just as good (or bad!) a job of delivering it as someone who works for an hour or more on each presentation. So it’s kind of hard to see how to address that. And I mean, if you’ve used up the ‘allowed’ proportion of time on your teaching & there are still tasks to do, do you just stop??

But I do think the workload model’s good, though, because it should make people assess what they’re doing & maybe consider ways of doing it better. Maybe there are more efficient ways of teaching than doing it all face-to-face? Do things like peer assessment (which we talked about in another thread) make it easier for lecturers to focus on the ‘core’ business? What is the ‘core’ of teaching in a particular discipline, in terms not only of content but of numbers and types of papers?

I don’t know the answers; maybe some of you do :-)

And I’d better get back to my marking!

April 15, 2010

thinking about curriculum

While I was down in Wellington last week, at the training camp for New Zealand’s International Biology Olympiad squad, I had a number of interesting discussions with the other teachers involved. One of them centred on curriculum.

2010 sees the implementation of the new NZ Curriculum - across the board, not just in the sciences, but I’ll base what follows on science as that’s the area where I’ve been involved. The Science section of the curriculum is rather different from the ‘old’ (1993) document in that it places the ‘nature of science’ right at the top of what students should be learning about. Previously this was in a separate ‘strand’ & easy to leave out if you were under pressure to deliver on the ‘content’ strands. So its position now is a Good Thing.

And this is where things can potentially get difficult (& the difficulties aren’t restricted to the secondary sector!). When you look at the Biology (Living World) section of the curriculum, there’s a considerable amount of content there, & similarly the explanatory notes for the relevant Achievement Standards suggest there’s a lot of material to get through. What’s more, that material gets added to each time something new comes up (some new biotechnology technique, for example) but things don’t drop off the back to make room for it. There’s also a certain amount of expectation from the universities that specific material will be taught in year 13 to prepare students for their university studies, never mind that many year 13 students don’t have uni as their final destination.

So there’s more & more ‘stuff’ to get through in the same fixed amount of time, & on top of that teachers now have to show, when writing their year’s study programs, how they’re going to implement the requirement to teach ‘nature of science’ on top of it all. The teachers I was talking with agreed that some form of content review was overdue.

They’re not helped in their task by the fact that the new curriculum document contains no examples of how students might be learning, & teachers assessing that learning, in the various disciplines – something that’s provided in the ‘old’ document. This doesn’t mean that teachers have to do it this way, but guidance is always helpful, especially when you’re dealing with major change. Yes, there are some associated resources available on-line, but that’s not quite the same thing.

We face a similar problem in the tertiary sector. First-year biology, for example, is expected to give students the content knowledge they need to go on to second-year & beyond. But this assumes that all our first-years are going on to major in biology, & while that would be nice :-) it’s not realistic – many students take it as an ‘interest’ paper or as a supporting subject, but they don’t intend to do the major.  So – what do we want those students to take from their 100-level bio papers? The ‘big ideas’ of biology? Some key concepts? An appreciation of the relevance of biology (& by extension science) to their everyday lives? The desire to continue learning about the sciences even if in an informal way? Knowledge of what science is, how it’s done, why it’s so different from ‘other ways of knowing’ about the world? (All of which are equally important to intending biologists.) And of course, there’s also the need to bridge students into the quite different learning environment of a university, & to ensure that we bridge the gap between what they learned in school and what we assume that they learned in school.

 In other words, those of us teaching in university science classrooms also need to be considering curriculum in its totality, & not simply the content that we teach.

April 5, 2010

On the perils of becoming a dinosaur

As a student I always complained about the ‘dinosaur teachers’: those that had lost touch with the students and with the teaching material. Those whose attitude seemed to scream: ‘I cannot be bothered any more’.

Patricia Cranton says, in the context of why someone teaches:

“Another person may have defined himself as a teacher through having a vision of the role of teaching in society but may now, after many disillusioning years of practice, maintain his perspective of himself as a teacher because it is a social expectation or obligation from which he feels he cannot escape. “

And that seems to sum up what a dinosaur teacher is. Teaching is neither foreign nor new to me, I have been teaching one way or another since 1982, and most of the women in my family were teachers of one sort or another.Yet I am not a teacher. I never received any formal training in teaching, and whatever I learned to do or to avoid, I did through trial and error. I am a scientist. I know how to do science. I received formal training, and though I (somehow) know how to navigate that world, it does not instantly qualify me as a good science teacher.

So after all these years, it was time for me to ask: have I become a dinosaur teacher? And if I have, can I do soemething about it?

I am now facing the challenge of replacing Colin Quilter in his teaching at the Medical School. These are not small shoes to fill, and it is a huge challenge. First, I am going back to teaching first and second year, which I have not done in a long time and which I consider much more difficult to do than higher level courses. It is not only the language but the size of the class. How do you engage with over a thousand students, especially when some are in an overflow room, which I cannot see? Colin was, to say the least, beloved by his students. If you do not believe me you can become a fan of a page called ‘Shrine to Colin Quilter’ on Facebook, or read his feature profile in Ako Aotearoa Academy of Tertiary Teaching Excellence. And facing a class knowing that the students expect a ‘Colin’ experience can be nothing less than terrifying.

But since I face fear as a scientist, I have decided to take a degree in education. For the next two years, I will become a student in tertiary education: I will sit in class, I will do homework and assignments, I will be assessed while I try to learn how to become a better teacher. I am not sure what to expect from the programme, but one thing is for certain: I will be in my student’s shoes again, shoes I vacated many years ago. And the programme, one way or another will make me sit down and think about issues around teaching in a more formal way. And that cannot be a bad thing.

Patricia Cranton (2001) Becoming an Authentic Teacher in Higher Education. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida.

April 4, 2010

Back to school, and into Talking Teaching

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — kubke @ 3:07 pm

Back to school indeed, this time as a student. How long has it been?

The last time that I sat in class as a student, there was no internet, no guitar hero, and no DVDs. (Having said that, it was really not that far ago!).

So what made me go back to school?

I waslucky to get tickets to go to TEDxAKL last year, where I heard Brenda Frisk for the first time. One phrase she said got stuck in my mind:

“Everyone has been educated so they think they understand education”

I was a ‘student’ for a total of 30 years (started at the age of 2 and graduated with my PhD at the age of 32). I have been teaching in tertiary education since 1988, and before that I had worked as a kindergarten, primary and secondary school teacher. So it comes to not surprise that Brenda’s statement resonated with me so much: I do not know a life outside of the education sector.

But do I understand education?

Well, there was one way of finding that out: Go back to school; I have now enrolled for a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice.

As part of the course, we are asked to keep a ‘teaching journal’, and this is how, after chatting with Alison and Marcus, this blog came to be. Unfortunately, this blog was also born as I headed towards what was to become one of the hardest teaching challenges I have ever had. So, between writing the blog and keeping my job, I chose the latter.

But I am here now, and I hope that this space will allow me to ponder about all things education that cross my mind as I navigate both being a student and a teacher and those experiences or readings that challenge my views about education.

Like Alison and Marcus, I also hope this space will be one of discussion and learning.
So that is me. For now.

April 3, 2010

so much to read, so little time!

Filed under: science teaching, university — alison @ 11:00 pm

I was spurred to write that title after writing a post while wearing my ‘other’ hat, over on the Bioblog. I was writing about the evolution of angiosperm leaves, a topic that had bubbled around in my brain after reading a review article in Nature. Now, I’m not a botanist, although I studied botany at uni & did well enough to be invited into honours. (I was invited into honours in zoology as well, & ended up going the ‘animal’ route. Not because I didn’t like plants, but because I liked animals more.) But I do give some lectures on plants to our first-year bio students, & I thoroughly enjoy it, not least because it’s forced me to get back into reading about botany.

Anyway, I read that paper on  leaves, & it all slotted into my mental filing system alongside bits & pieces from a book by one of the paper’s authors. I’ll be giving the paper to my students to read, after Easter, & hopefully – for some of them anyway! – this will act as an entree to the book (The Emerald Planet, for those of you who might be interested).  And then, as I googled for images, what did I find but a post by another blogger based on an earlier paper about plant leaf vein evolution. At which point I thought – how can I ever hope to keep up? There is just so much material out there. You could spend all day, every day, reading in your own field (let alone any other area) & probably just keep your head above the sea of words.

I knew this already, but it’s still a sobering realisation. And at least those of us at university have the luxury of being able to spend time reading the latest work – we have to, so that our teaching & our research are firmly based on the current state of knowledge in our disciplines. But for school teachers… I remember, when I was teaching in secondary school, that I’d read a bit here & there & flatter myself that I was ‘keeping up’. But I know I wasn’t…

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