Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The More I Teach the Less I Preach (republished)

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This article was originally published as the first of an ongoing series on faculty development on Keep Learning, a space initiated and co-facilitated by Maha Bali and Lee Skallerup Bessette and edited by Sean Michael Morris. Topic: critical faculty development.

Faculty development has been my main role since 2003. Back before I started my master’s degree in education, and before I started formally teaching for-credit courses. At the time, I felt confident and comfortable as an instructional technologist, believing I had enough technology and pedagogy background to consult faculty on how to improve their own teaching (despite loathing a title that focused on “instruction” and had “technology” in it). Now, 12 years, one PhD, and over 8 years of teaching later, I’m not as comfortable with that role. It’s a case of “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” It’s a shift of focus and it’s giving me a bit of an identity crisis as someone who sees herself as a teacher and writer and learner, but who also wants to continue supporting other teachers. Just differently.

I remember the first time someone in the humanities told me, “don’t talk to my faculty about outcomes, it will get their hackles up”. I was surprised, and thought those faculty must be either lazy or just not willing to go the extra mile. Soon after, I was giving a workshop to a group of young activists wanting to develop a curriculum for developing character in future citizens. It dawned on me pretty quickly that Bloom’s taxonomy was not going to help me here. As I myself started teaching, I began to realize how much I focused on the process of learning happening in my class, and very little on outcomes and rubrics and measurement, and how fluid my perspective on content was. I realized that no matter how much I planned my course in advance, what I actually did in class emerged as I got to know my students better and worked more closely with them, and I needed to create space for this. I have never taught a course the same way twice. Neither the students nor I are the same as the group last semester.

I am very sensitive now about the connection between one person’s teaching philosophy, the restrictions the institution puts upon them for their courses, and the interactions in the actual classroom with the particular students they have — and how this all is influenced by the external environment outside the university walls altogether. My acute awareness of the complexity of all of this makes me question my role as faculty developer and how much I can help someone teach better without having insight into the full experience they have every week in class, and what goes on in their own head.

This all makes me realize one of the problems of instructional design. I’m not trained as an instructional designer but I often work with faculty to help them design their courses. Helping them write their outcomes, align their assessments, develop their rubrics, tick those boxes. But now I’m thinking, “but I don’t know who your students are” and “but I’m not an expert in your subject matter”; and “I have read that this strategy works in your field but I don’t know if it will work for you, with your teaching philosophy that you are not yet able to articulate but which I am trying to glean from meeting you a few times but never watching you teach”. Also: “I want to support you to trust your own judgment, to be confident to respond to what your students need”.

And I feel I also don’t want to be judgmental. Faculty development can be so judgmental. As if faculty who don’t want to use technology are resistant for no reason, when, really, there is absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to use technology. It’s actually better than using it indiscriminately or for buzzwords’ sake or for fun. It’s not fun to try things on students without reflecting deeply about why you’re doing it. I encourage innovation and I try new things with my students all the time. But I also make sure I reflect a lot and give students opportunities to let me know how it went for them, so I can improve it next time or even make room this time around.

As my role has become more senior as a faculty developer, I have found myself increasingly less comfortable with how my position as a faculty member and PhD-holder gives an impression of expertise that I don’t want to “carry” with me while consulting with faculty. I don’t really have an interest in revising learning outcomes, creating rubrics, aligning assessments or evaluating syllabi. I feel uncomfortable doing this for these reasons:

  1. I know what happens in the classroom can be so different from what we plan; other teachers may adhere more strictly to their syllabi than I do; in all cases, each teacher will do what makes them comfortable or excited, and that’s not for me to dictate or suggest

  2. I don’t feel I have enough knowledge of each teacher’s context (no matter what research I do; and even then how many people can I do it with?) to advise them in a holistic manner

  3. I don’t believe that doing these things helps anyone become a better teacher; I think the discussions surrounding them helps people think about their teaching; but the direction may or may not be one I would endorse, and that’s OK.

Instead, I have an interest in having conversations about pedagogy that may inspire us all, that we may all learn from. I want faculty development to be about sharing our processes and reflections behind why we teach the way we teach, about how we teach and how it turns out (not necessarily the way we planned) and how we perceive learning. I want to encourage sharing and risk-taking. I want to encourage reflection on teaching in ways that will help individuals mentor themselves seeking external support by the right person at the right time.

I understand that as a faculty developer my main responsibility is towards the students — to ensure as many faculty as possible care about improving the student experience. But I also think of my role as a pedagogue and how that should transfer to how we approach faculty development.

I would like to propose that faculty development become about consciousness-raising, the way Freire means it — and this reminds me of an Arabic saying about our awareness of our own knowledge, highlighting four kinds of people (in this case, teachers). I have adapted it to four kinds of teachers as follows (not rigid categories, as people can move within and between them):

  1. Teachers with good instincts who know they have good instincts and follow them no matter what — these are stars, we (faculty developers) can use them to inspire others; these are probably the people who are confident enough to participate by suggesting topics in unconferences or more formal workshops or presentations. Interestingly, people with good instincts still sometimes seek faculty development support because they are sensitive to opportunities for improvement

  2. Teachers with good instincts but who don’t realize they have good instincts; they doubt themselves because hegemonic discourses from external authorities make them doubt themselves, or one or two angry students can derail them. They need some consciousness-raising, and some support collecting evidence that what they do “works” and also some alternative theories (e.g. That it is totally ok to digress from today’s planned lesson to respond to student interest, need, or engagement; that it’s ok that some of their learning outcomes are not easily measurable)

  3. Teachers with not-so-good instincts who know their instincts are not good. They may or may not be willing to ask for faculty development support, may not know how to find time to improve, and may need help taking teaching suggestions critically. They may be dazzled by buzzwords like flipping and blending and need lots of support to implement them well. They may also initially seem dependent and want a faculty developer to hand-hold rather than facilitate their journey.

  4. Teachers with bad instincts who don’t know they have bad instincts. These are the most resistant to faculty development support, not recognizing room for improvement. The Arabic saying suggests that the person who “doesn’t know and doesn’t know s/he doesn’t know” should be avoided. But I disagree. I think all people can be reached. We owe it to our students, no matter how busy we and our faculty are. If we tell faculty that all students can be reached, then we need to tell ourselves, as faculty developers, that all faculty can also be reached.

In what ways can we advocate for a critical approach to faculty development on the individual and institutional level?

I removed text related to upcoming #facedevchat Twitter chats

One Comment

  1. I really like your point about restictions and interactions Maha. I have found the Modern Learning Canvas useful for portraying this.

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