Getting From Here to There: The Problem with Wildly Innovative Teaching

The Chronicle ran an interesting story this morning about Kansas State University cultural anthropology professor Michael Wesch titled “A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working.” (Hat tip to @sidneyeve for tweeting about the story.) The story also profiles Christopher Sorensen, a physics professor at Kansas State. When it comes to teaching methods, these two professors couldn’t be further apart. Sorensen is an old-school, stand-and-deliver lecturer who thinks that teaching is largely a performative act. (“It’s almost like being an actor,” Sorensen says.) Wesch, on the other hand, is a tech-friendly instructor who finds highly innovative ways to help students make sense of course content. For instance, see his 2008 “world simulation” activity, recapped in the video below.

As different as these two instructors are, they have one thing in common: It’s hard for other college and university instructors to use them as models of good teaching.

I’m glad that Sorensen takes his teaching seriously and that students respond to his methods, but it’s problematic that Sorensen seems to think that good teaching is more about personality than anything else.  He says in the article, “If the messenger is excited and passionate about what they have to say, it leaves a good impression. It stimulates students to see what all this excitement is about.” He reports saying to a faculty candidate once, “You seem like a good guy—you’ll make a great teacher.” What if an instructor doesn’t have the right kind of personality to be a good teacher? It would seem the instructor is out of luck: Sorensen believes that “the things that make a good teacher are difficult—if not impossible—to teach.”

Having an engaging personality is certainly an advantage as a teacher, but there’s a lot more to teaching than just personality. More importantly, if an instructor is struggling in the classroom or just interested in improving his or her craft, telling the instructor to “get a better personality” isn’t practical advice. It’s far more productive to help that instructor develop his or her teaching skills–clarifying learning objectives, designing assessments, leading discussion, and so on. If improving the learning experience for all students is the goal, then Sorenson’s notion that good teachers are born, not made, is not a helpful one.

What about Michael Wesch? Isn’t he a rockstar of innovative teaching? That’s true, and not just because he’s gotten tons of attention for his teaching. (His video “A Vision of Students Today” has received over 4 million views on YouTube.) He’s a rockstar because he’s done some truly innovative things in his courses. The world simulation seen in the video above is one example, but even the things he does that are smaller in scope, like his crowdsourced bibliography activity, are creative and (apparently) effective.

The problem I have with Wesch’s teaching methods isn’t with their innovation or effectiveness, it’s with their transferability. How many professors are going to have the time and expertise to pull off a world simulation like Wesch’s? As Mary Huber of the Carnegie Foundation says in the Chronicle piece, “None of this work is off-the-shelf.” Wesch uses educational technology in very sophisticated ways, which is great for him, but it’s difficult for most instructors, who have more limited technology expertise, to implement these methods–as Wesch himself has been finding.

There’s a lot other instructors can learn from Wesch’s approaches to teaching, if they can look past the technology. For instance, Howard Rheingold points to the importance of motivating students:

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George Station notes the role of “communities of inquiry”:

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And Sharon Flynn makes explicit the connection between techniques and student learning:

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My concern with how Wesch has, at least in the past, shared his approaches to teaching is that his use of technology obscures these principles for many listeners. He does a great job identifying problems with traditional higher education teaching methods (see “A Vision of Students Today,” for instance), and he offers some pretty amazing responses to these problems that he’s implemented in his classes. But I’m not sure if he’s done as well as helping other instructors, particularly the ones not as tech savvy as him, think about ways they can adapt their teaching practices to respond to these problems.

By way of contrast, consider the humble classroom response system. Clickers may not be the most exciting educational technology around, but I’ve found that they can be useful in just about any teaching context. (See, for instance, the number of different disciplines represented in my book.) All you need is a little technology and a good multiple-choice question. Those two things aren’t always easy to come by for instructors, but the technical and conceptual thresholds needed to use clickers are much lower than with many other teaching methods, technology-based or not. It’s worth my time as an educational developer to learn about clickers because I know that doing so has the potential to help many, many instructors with whom I consult. I can say the same thing about think-pair-share and jigsaw activities. I can’t say the same thing about, say, teaching in Second Life or (let’s be honest) using Twitter for an in-class backchannel.

It seems from the Chronicle article that Wesch has realized that something’s been missing from his talks on teaching. Perhaps his future talks will not only share the technologies he uses in his teaching, but also make more explicit the principles of learning that those technologies successfully exploit. It’s those principles that other instructors can leverage, even if they don’t adopt the same technologies that Wesch does. Wesch is one of the keynote speakers at the POD Network conference this fall. I’m really looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

Update: Michael Wesch left some comments on that Chronicle article that are worth reading. This one supports one of my arguments above:

However, I have recently realized how buried that message can be in a presentation that is otherwise dazzling with technology and the ways in which it empowers students to connect and collaborate with people all over the world and produce work that they can take pride in knowing has significantly altered the way people talk and think about certain topics.

Image: “missing steps,” Stefan Bucher, Flickr (CC)

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