Spend any time involved in faculty development and you’ll discover there are two very common misconceptions about teaching. On the one hand are those who treat teaching as a mystical art shrouded in swirling mists. Teaching conferences and workshops are opportunities to sit at the feet of the masters and learn their incantations—with the understanding that one may prove too much of a muggle to be any good at the whole thing. On the other hand are those who believe that spending any amount of time talking about teaching is an inherent waste. Teaching is just…teaching and belaboring the point only gets in the way of actually doing it.
Neither perspective is helpful. Both spring from a common mistake: thinking of teaching as if it were a simple “thing.” As if someone could snap a photo of you during your day and give it the unambiguous caption “teaching”—as easily identifiable as a photo of “walking the dog” or “sleeping.” The reality is that teaching is not a simple activity. When we talk about teaching, we’re actually referring to four separate skills or activities woven together into a compound concept we call “teaching.” My thinking on this matter has been strongly influenced by Maria Andersen and her talk “Levers of Change in Higher Education” (though I make no claim that her conclusions are my own).
A major component of teaching has always been the organization of learning objectives and materials in order to create learning experiences. This happens at a number of levels, including the broad curricular level or designing programs, departments/disciplines, and majors. Not all faculty participate in learning design at this high level, but almost all are familiar with curating learning experiences for a single course—choosing course objectives, assessment techniques, learning resources, and learning activities. Curation is a natural part of teaching because it draws upon faculty’s expert-level, 10,000-foot view of a subject. Perhaps more controversially, I would also argue that it’s hard to separate curation from teaching because what we choose to focus on in a course, how we frame the material is an unavoidably subjective and personal decision. Many faculty have had the experience of teaching a class from someone else’s materials an immediately thinking “that’s not how I would have done this at all.”
I fear that when most people outside of education talk about teaching they’re really talking about the teacher as the physical embodiment of content delivery. Unfortunately, many faculty also act as if this is the true essence of teaching. This helps to explain why faculty-delivered class lectures continue to be so prevalent as an instructional strategy. At some level, though, most faculty realize that students will receive content from sources other than themselves. Textbooks and other sources are probably the most common alternate form of content delivery. Of course, there are those professors who assign their own textbooks.
Curation and content delivery are the precursors for student learning. If we’re truly serious about students’ learning, there is a significant responsibility on the back end of the process. Certification refers to the role that faculty have in making summative assessments of learning and attainment of objectives. The symbolic output of the certification process are course grades and, in a broader sense, the college degree and diploma. Certification and assessment remain one of the most controversial aspects of teaching (grade inflation, anyone?). While that makes a powerful case for the importance of research into better, more authentic, and more accurate methods of assessment, it doesn’t change its fundamental importance. Certification is something we do on behalf of students to bolster the confidence of those who must depend upon their learning—such as future employers. It’s also something we do for ourselves, since an understanding of our students’ success or failure is needed to help fine-tune our own contributions to their learning.
While some faculty excel at this aspect of teaching, I would argue that it’s probably the most ignored and the least glamorous. Certification is an institutional responsibility but the nature of summative assessment is that it comes at the end of the process, when it’s too late to make any real improvement. If student learning is truly our primary focus, our teaching must include a different role than just judge and jury. We need to come alongside learners in the midst of their studies in order to gauge their personal progress and struggles. Giving students this kind of formative feedback, designed to move students closer to understanding and mastery, requires close contact with learners. While content delivery can effectively be scaled to MOOC-level proportions, it strains the bounds of imagination to believe that one professor can give valuable feedback to thousands of learners in one course.
The closest analog to this aspect of teaching is the athletic coach. A good coach isn't known by their lectures on how to properly swing a baseball bat. A good coach is known for the individual time they spend with each athlete, diagnosing their weaknesses, reinforcing their strengths, and offering customized remedial instruction in order to improve their performance. We have a term for this in education: it's called tutoring. In the eyes of many faculty it’s a menial, marginal aspect of education best left to fellow undergrads hired by the campus tutoring center. But if the real heart of education is making sure that every student is learning as much as they can, I would argue that there’s no aspect of teaching more important than coaching.
Adopting this less monolithic, more nuanced concept of teaching has at least two major benefits. First, it allows faculty to avoid instructional fatalism and approach their profession with a growth mindset. If teaching isn’t about having mystical powers, then becoming a teacher is—like most things in life—about identifying one’s strengths and weaknesses and engaging in a process of personal development.
Second, a nuanced concept of teaching brings an important corrective to debates about the future of higher education. Stories about MOOCs, the Khan Academy, and educational disruption often trigger doomsday warnings about conspiracies to “get rid of teachers.” Thinking in terms identified above, it’s clear that the principal threat is to the individual faculty member’s role as the embodiment of content delivery. For many, the first response is a knee-jerk defense of the status quo. Those who hope to preserve the best of higher education as it has been might be better served with a different strategy.
While it's not magic, we should acknowledge that there's a lot more to teaching than preparing and delivering lectures. I don’t think anyone in their right mind believes that we can replace professors with magical teaching machines. Ardent proponents of MOOCs, however, have spoken of teaching in ways that seem painfully naive. Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity and one of the leading forces behind Google’s self-driving cars, has suggested that teaching tens of thousands of students at a time is inherently better than what happens in a traditionally-sized classroom. More ego-gratifying for the professor? Perhaps. More efficient in terms of pure content delivery? Certainly. Better able to promote learning—which is, in theory, the whole purpose of the multifaceted act of teaching? That remains to be seen.