Teaching teaching

Anj Petto (ajpetto@MACC.WISC.EDU)
Fri, 4 Mar 1994 18:08:14 -0600

Damned with faint praise - how often have you read a teaching evaluation by
an undergraduate (or other nonspecialist) that included (some variation
of)"S/he is really intelligent and seems to know the field, but s/he cannot
(does not) seem to be able to get it across effectively."

To the extent that someone interested in "getting it across effectively"
can be taught the mechanics and techniques that others have discovered,
then teaching teachers is both feasible and necessary. But, as pointed out
several times in this discussion, it is not sufficient to ensure effective
or interesting teaching. It is certainly important to learn about
teaching; to discover what works for an individual teacher; and to have an
storehouse of alternatives for those occasions when the "tried and true"
isn't making the grade. After all, most of our universities are still
teaching the way that Socrates did.

This can be done by learning on the job, but only with the guidance of a
dedicated and patient mentor. And there is a place for some formal
instruction in the technical areas.

What we often leave out in these discussions is the issue of how the
students learn. What has changed in higher education over the past couple
of decades is not just the ethnic blend of the faculty, staff, and
students; the universities have been asked to try to meet three different,
sometimes conflicting, objectives. First, we are trying to provide a
general education -- the basis for an informed and active citizenry that
has the basic skills to continue life-long learning and to be able to deal
with issues that we cannot even dream of today. Second, we are asked to
provide specific information or a knowledge base -- either as a
prerequisite to high studies or as the necessary basis for career
development. Third, we are asked to prepare students for a life of
scholarship -- graduate/professional schools, etc.

Sometimes, all three objectives are piled on in the same course and the
tension(s) among them can really be damaging to the teacher -- especially
one who has not learned to identify and articulate course objectives,
strategies for reaching them, and evaluative mechanisms to assess how the
instructors and students are doing. *These* things can be taught in a
course, in a book, by an individual mentor, etc. This learning does not
replace the experience of teaching or its value in learning to be a good
teacher; but it may help both new teachers and their students by preventing
a lot of wasted time and counterproductive effort trying to discover things
that make up the shared knowledge of professional educators.

As anthropologists, you would think that we would be in a position to help
the rest of academia understand the culture of teaching and learning.

Finally, though this is not the highlight of the book (and never really
articulated in the movie), Pat Conroy described the "gestalt" of teaching
perhaps better than anyone.

"There is no word in the language that I revere more than teacher. None.
My heart sings when a kid refers to me as his teacher and it always will."

Maybe that's the key. We need to start with THAT attitude, then do
whatever it takes to live up to the implications.

(This from a biological anthropologist AND an educator [and, despite our
best laid plans, an educational administrator])


Andrew J. Petto, PhD
Associate Director
Center for Biology Education
660 WARF
University of Wisconsin

Voice: 608.263-0478
Fax: 608.262-0014
Internet: ajpetto@macc.wisc.edu