Learning to be transparent in teaching

If you were to look at the books I’ve read in the last few weeks, you might be surprised. Instead of the usual science fiction and fantasy fare, I’ve been reading what are basically teaching resource books. New Learning is on the list. So is The Elements of Teaching Writing and even Introduction to Rubrics.

Part of that change is because of my job — I’ve been a TA for a writing class for the last year and a-half — and the other reason is simply because that’s what I feel drawn to lately. After spending nearly two years studying how to teach students writing in a discipline (i.e. programmers for the most part), I have a small but growing skill-set for addressing that problem. I know how to begin to move coders, who are frequently distrustful of writing, into a place where they can start to describe their processes and mindset.

And as I’ve taken this journey, I’ve also learned more about myself. Principally, that I actually like teaching and, at least so far, have some aptitude for it. Much to my surprise, I have the patience to deal with students and can (sometimes) help them get to the place they need to be. Not just in showing a process, but in getting students to question what they have been doing so far and even the purpose behind it.

The trick, I’ve learned, is to be transparent in what you are doing. Or, put another way, to get your students to think about the reason behind a specific text being on the list to read or even why certain questions are asked. Allowing them to see through the teaching to person on the other side of the podium.

For example, one of my favorite variations goes like this “Why do you think this article was required reading? How does it compare to the other things we’ve read so far?”

That may seem like a pretty standard question, getting students to engage in comparing or contrasting one text with others. But, the change for this pattern is to move to the next level with it too. “And why do you think I selected it?”

It’s the idea behind one of the buzzwords used in most of the reading and many of the conversations I’ve had with those willing to impart teaching wisdom to me: create meta-cognitive moments. Get students to think about their thinking. It’s what is often used to try to move students from summary (the text says this) to synthesis (the themes across these works also apply here too).

The strategy is to engage students in thinking about the purpose behind the question. As teachers (or at least acting in the role), we present material that often seems unconnected. Sure, it may be under headings or lumped together in chapters, but the point is to show that, yes, looking at A will lead us to B.

Bring together the threads between different subjects often becomes something we try to stamp didactically — “I’m telling you about it, so it’s important!” — instead of allowing students a look behind the curtain of the teaching itself. That’s the Forbidden Zone for many faculty though. Any small crack of humanity and the illusion of command disappears, some feel.

Yet, the more I’ve watched professors I wish to someday emulate, I’ve come to think that approach isn’t as effective anymore. Mark it as a change in attention spans or the post-modern era. Chalk it up to technology. Call it anything you want, really.

You have to show that you are a person. Sure, you might have final say in a matter, but that doesn’t mean discussions can’t happen around how to grade a paper or if a particular text is useful for studying a theme too. Don’t be afraid — and I am writing this as much to myself as anyone else — to give up some power to your students too.

Ask the tough questions. “We’ve read Y and Z this semester. If you were designing the course for future students and had to pick only one, which one would it be? Why?”

More than anything else, and I hope this is something I can follow too, draw attention to the fourth wall of the classroom. Poke at it sometimes. Allow students to present some material. Encourage participation. In general, show them that their input matters to the final product that is the learning experience of the class.

Sometimes, yes, it might be an illusion. But, when possible, empower them by pointing that none of us has all the right answers all the time. Together though, just like the academic community should work, we can build on each other’s knowledge to get to be a new, unexplored place.