Talking Teaching

August 23, 2013

what am i?

I’ve been involved in a few discussions lately, on the issue of what ‘we’ actually are. That is, are those of us who work with students in our lecture rooms, laboratories and tut classes, teachers? Is that the label we want attached to ourselves (eg in things like paper & teaching appraisal surveys)?

Disappointingly, there seems to be a fairly large body of opinion that says “no, no that’s not the right name. ‘Teachers’ is what people in schools could be described as. But we’re lecturers, not teachers.” (Someone went so far as to say that using the name ‘teacher’ would only be confusing, as students associated the term with their school experiences & didn’t expect it at university.)

Interestingly, this is not a reflection of how universities are described in the 1989 Education Act. Section 162 of the Act tells us (my emphasis in bold font) that

 universities have all the following characteristics and other tertiary institutions have 1 or more of those characteristics:

  • (i)they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:

  • (ii)their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:

  • (iii)they meet international standards of research and teaching:

  • (iv)they are a repository of knowledge and expertise:

  • (v)they accept a role as critic and conscience of society;

and that

  • a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning:

This all makes it fairly clear that the official view of what folks like me do, in our university jobs, is teaching i.e. facilitating advanced learning in our students, helping them to become independent, autonomous learners, and (while last, definitely not least!) promoting learning in the wider community. (I have to say, in Hamilton at the moment, this often feels like an uphill battle in the face of widespread misinformation about water fluoridation. But you can read more about this here, and here.)

And that’s true whether our job descriptions include the word tutor, lecturer, or professor. To me, if the word ‘teaching’ is included in the description of what universities do, then we are ‘teachers’.

Now, I suppose you could argue that I’m just being picky, but I think this is actually quite an important issue as it relates to what we perceive ourselves doing in our classrooms. That’s because if someone sees themselves as a lecturer, & not a teacher, then they could well have a mental image of what the role of ‘lecturer’ entails. And it’s a fair bet that this includes, you know, lecturing: standing in front of a class and delivering 50 minutes of information on a topic in which that person has expertise.

And to me, this is a problem because there’s an increasing body of research now that clearly shows that this passive-student model of teaching & learning – not just lectures, but also ‘cookbook’ lab classes – is probably the least effective thing we can do, in expanding students’ knowledge & understanding of a subject. This was demonstrated very clearly by Richard Hake in his 1998 analysis of the outcomes for more than 6,500 students enrolled in a total of 62 introductory physics courses. Hake found that courses that used ‘interactive-engagement’ techniques for teaching and learning were significantly better – much better – in terms of successful learning and retention of material. Subsequently Carl Wieman and his science-education research group have built on the work of Hake and others in the physics area – have a look at the figures at the end of this 2005 paper, for example: teaching techniques that encourage passive learning by students don’t result in any real long-term learning or retention. Nor is it just physics; I’ve written previously about similar research findings from the area of biology education (e.g. Haak et al. ,2011).

‘Teacher’ to me implies the use of a much wider range of classroom techniques that encourage active student engagement and successful long-term learning. And yes, I’m a teacher, and proud of it!

 

Haak DC, HilleRisLambers J, Pitre E, & Freeman S (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science , 332 (6034), 1213-6 PMID: 21636776

Hake RR (1998) Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. Am. J. Phys. 66: 64-74

Wieman C & Perkins K (2006) Transforming physics education. Physics Today Online, http://www.physicstoday.org/vol-58/iss-11/p36.shtml

August 1, 2013

does science literacy matter?

That’s the title of a post over on the Australian site, The Conversation (which I found by way of a piece on “Scientists, the media, & society” by Sir Peter Gluckman). The author of the piece, Ken Friedman, answers his question with an emphatic “yes, and here’s why”.

As he notes,

The big question is what we expect citizens in a modern industrial democracy to know & to understand

- he’s writing following the publication of a recent survey by the Australian Academy of Science that suggested that in some areas, Australians’ science knowledge could be better. (And, I hasten to add, I suspect a similar survey would garner similar results in New Zealand.)

It caught my eye because I recently had a discussion around assessment: the context was on-line assessment and whether it mattered if students could check resources as they wrote. My feeling on this one was no, not if your assessment was intended to look at skills & higher-order thinking and not simple mastery of factual content. Those attributes – which specifically relate to science literacy – are surely ones that all uni graduates should come out with, after all.

I probably need to unpack that statement a bit! I agree that students do require some (lots of?) factual knowledge in a subject, and that their knowledge should increase in breadth & depth as they progress through their program of learning. But shouldn’t they also be learning how to process that information? How to assess its validity? How to apply it in novel circumstances? After all, there’s a huge body of information – which varies greatly in quality – out there on the internet (& in more traditional places such as libraries!) and freely available to anyone who knows how to use a search engine. And it’s very clear, from following on-line discussions (on fluoridation, for example) – Facebook, science blogs, newspaper comments pages – that how people deal with that information is really important.

So, provided that I’d given students plenty of opportunity to learn & practice the relevant skills in advance, I could see opportunities for on-line assessment where it wouldn’t matter if students had books open, or webpages. Because the assessment item would provide information (in a structured way, & for a particular context) & students would be assessed, not on their knowledge, but on their ability to apply those higher-order thinking skills to the data set.**

But maybe I’m a tad too idealistic :) Feel free to drop by & let me know what you think!

** In the same way, after running the ‘design-an-organism’ classes for a couple of years now, I’ve seriously thought about asking just two questions in the final exam: ‘design’ a plant, and an animal, for a particular well-defined environment. Give plenty of background information, & let them go to it. The test would be in how well they could justify their various decisions. Hmmmm.

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