Blog Post

One year in, what has changed?

Please note that this is re-posted from my personal blog at

How my teaching has evolved after a year on the job and why I'll watch what I tweet

This semester marks the beginning of my 2nd full year teaching as a member of the Faculty at Indiana University (I started in January 2009). The twitter version of this post A few days ago, I began to prepare for class by reviewing my notes from the same session in the previous year. As I read them, I was struck by how differently I approach my teaching now. I didn't give it that much thought other than to tweet about it (that's one of the points of twitter after all, isn't it?). Apparently someone is reading those darn things. @joshbaron replied almost immediately asking the obvious question: how?

I tapped off a few quick replies (see the img to the right) and then promised a lengthier response in the form of a blog post. The more I thought about it, though, the more I think it is not so much that my teaching has changed, as that I have. The voice I saw in the notes from the prior year was the voice of a vaguely different, slightly greener, less confident academic who was just beginning to figure out the balancing act this job demands; a process that is still very much in progress.

The stage, as it were

First, a little background. I truly love teaching. Also, while there is always room for improvement and I'm no exception, I consider my teaching so far to have been reasonably successful. Why? First, I see the students changing over the course of the semester, becoming more confident, knowledgeable, and articulate in their ideas and arguments both verbally and in their final papers (this is great for me, and presumably for the students as well). Second, my teaching reviews have been pretty decent (good for tenure, though not as important as other things). Finally, I had the good fortune to receive honorable mention in the Sakai Foundation's Teaching With Sakai Innovation Award (exciting for me, bragging rights for my parents).

However, as Lee Schulman once said at a graduate training event that I attended, funded by the Spencer Foundation, it behooves us to study and reflect upon our teaching with the same kind of intent and rigor as we think about our research lest we do a mediocre job or persist under the incorrect assumption that we are teaching effectively when we might not be. I agree. My teaching isn't just interesting and important to me, but also to the University as a whole, to the students who are in my classes, and I would argue to the communities who will be served by the future educators and educational researchers that I am helping to train.

OK. So, I take it seriously. I'm also a Learning Scientist and an Activity Theorist which means that I am deeply interested in how people learn, how activity systems learn, and how the two are related. The majority of my research also happens to focus on the role of external representations (drawings, diagrams, charts, etc.) in supporting learning, the role of technology in supporting learning, and the way that interaction unfolds in and helps to shape learning contexts (more here). Admittedly, I mostly study 7-year-olds, but many of the same principles apply. Which is all to say that I've got some theoretical epistemological, and practical commitments that shape my reflective process as I think about my teaching.

Enough already, what's changed?

As I see it, teaching is about juggling between tensions. So, what has changed for me is that I have become more aware of what some of those tensions are, have made some very real, personal choices about how to balance them, and have become more confident in my ability to do so. Before I list some of the tensions that I find most interesting, important, and rewarding, let me make one key note: teaching is also about finding your voice. It's easy to try and emulate the professor who seems to "win" with students by being their friend, by being a comedian, by being so stern and intimidating that students are afraid not to excel. But if that's not you, I am pretty sure the students can see the facade from a mile away. So here are some of the tensions that I think are important. I hope you find them interesting, useful, sometimes familiar, and perhaps thought provoking. And that you will share some of your own in the comments below.

So, some tensions:

  1. Teaching well v. selling your students on the fact that you are teaching well: I figured I would start with this one because in some ways it frames many of the others. There are two inter-related issues here. The first is that I think students are more motivated, engaged, and generally positive (e.g., forgiving of your goofs among other things) if they feel you are doing something generally good for them. The other is the simple fact that if they feel that way, they say it on the recommendations which ultimately reflect on your performance review. The first reason is the more important one for me, but I'd be lying if I said the second didn't matter. In either case, sometimes we need to do something students won't like, like give them a bad grade on a paper that they thought was pretty darn good. I don't have a golden rule for how to balance this, but I try and handle it with the following three methods:
    1. I always try to reflect back on whether or not I am doing the students a disservice in my choices. If I feel I am helping them to learn and become better scholars, then I'll go for it and worry about the reviews later.
    2. I strive for transparency (see below). I find this goes a long way.
    3. Finally, I've re-worked my grading schema / assignment structures to promote revision and reflection. Whenever possible I give students feedback early and often and then let them re-write if they need, giving them a higher grade if they adjust and adapt effectively. This is a bit more work for me, but it's also more work for the students who care. If they take advantage of the opportunities to push their understanding, I'm happy to meet them 1/2 way on the effort. If not, well then, I don't feel as bad giving them a lower grade. They chose their priorities and they have their reasons.
  2. Teaching v. Guiding: Simply put, my theoretical and epistemological commitments suggest that the best way to teach is not to stand up in the front of the room and lecture. Don't get me wrong, it is sometimes helpful, worthwhile, and downright efficient to spend some time in the front of the room giving students some key information. Usually for me this is the background information, connecting ideas, and framing to help them think about the big ideas in the readings I've selected. Then, I think it is much more valuable, more often than not, to engage students in doing their own thinking about the ideas through a collection of activities where they are challenged to revisit the ideas in the readings, define them, clarify their own commitments, debate and answer each other's questions, and create other representations (back to my research roots here) that help them to express and clarify their ideas. The trick is that doing this badly can sometimes seem like a gimmick. The students are, after all, paying quite a bit of money to be in the classroom with me. But that's the trick, isn't it? They're paying, whether they realize it or not, to be in the classroom not only with me, but with a bunch of other smart, interested and interesting people.

    Nonetheless, I want the students to feel good about what they are getting from me and from the experience. My solution? I lecture when I need to, and when students seem to really want it. I design activities that make sense to me theoretically. And I challenge not only myself to have good reasons for my teaching choices, but I encourage my students to do the same. If I don't have a good reason for the way I am tackling a subject, I tell them, then I shouldn't be doing it. The rest, for me, is about being both flexible and transparent. I plan for about 30% more class time than I actually have. Then, I roll with the punches. I have ideas up my sleeve for all of the eventualities that might arise, and I'm ready to throw those ideas out the window if students are confused, frustrated, or on the flip-side, getting to and through the big ideas faster than I expected. It's tiring, but immensely satisfying to strike the right balance and flow with the students. I don't always hit it, but it sure feels right when I do. Either way, I reflect and take notes after. The next class or year won't be identical, but I can still learn something from my experiences.

  3. Challenging students v. Helping students: Motivation researchers have pretty consistently pointed out that there is a balance somewhere between a task being too easy (boring) and too hard (not worth the effort). Not everyone knows where their spot is, so it's certainly hard to know from the front of the room when it is worth pushing and when to ease up. I struggle with this, especially when pushing someone raises one of the other tensions here. So I go back to whether I truly believe it will help the student, and then I just keep my eyes open and adapt to what I see happening. If students take the challenge and want more, I throw it at them. If not, I ease up and wait until later. This is a dimension I struggle with constantly because it is too easy sometimes to fall into the trap of thinking "it's my fault, I should push less hard or teach better" (for others the opposite trap of "they are too lazy" is the easy one to fall into). To be perfectly honest, I'm not that great at this one, so I've had to rely on friends and family to push back on me and tell me that they know I doing the best I can, and to trust in the students to do the same. See, I told you I listen?! Sometimes anyhow...
  4. Transparency v. Mystique: One piece of advice I received second-hand before I started teaching went something like this: "It doesn't matter what you say so long as you look brilliant saying it. Maintain that air of Professorial Brilliance at all costs and let the rest work itself out." I'm not sure if this works for others, but I can't do it even if I want to. I like to be honest with my students and tell them when I don't know something and when I struggle(d) with something. I believe they respect the honesty. The trick is maintaining my own genuine confidence and making sure that shines through too. Nobody wants to be taught by someone who isn't sure that what they are doing is a good idea. So, I opt for transparency. I also tell students the reasons behind my instructional choices. It helps a bit, I am sure, that I am in a School of Education and talking to students interested in teaching. But I would do it anyway. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to teach, so why not share it with the students and help them to share my confidence in why it will work?
  5. Open-ness v. the Other way: Increasingly, classrooms are being opened to the world. Even if you don't put your course online, and keep your syllabus behind closed doors, your students can and do share what they like, learn, and hate. And they will tweet about it. And blog about it. Anyone who isn't aware of how memes can flow across the internet or one's own social network probably isn't reading this blog post, so I won't bother repeating it. Where do I come down? In principle I love it. I'm in this game for the developing and spreading of ideas, so why not let them run rampant? In practice, though, I am a relatively private individual who not only doesn't want every half-baked idea out in the world, but is well aware that his students may not as well, and sometimes worries about how to separate the wheat from the chaff in consuming all the information that is out there.

    So, I categorize my exploration with social media and open-ness as an experiment in progress, especially because I have and will continue to have students and colleagues who want to push me out there and have pretty compelling arguments for why I should dive in head first. I dabble my toes. It started with some tweets (see my professional, @jdanish, and teaching, @drdanish, twitter accounts) and a revamped website and is now branching into other areas (more on this someday soon). And I explore. I have, so far, mostly found it incredibly rewarding. More people are joining in the conversation. My students are talking about the big ideas of class in-between sessions. And I am privy to it which can and does influence my teaching in good ways (though a tension here is not to over-respond to student ideas, gripes, or preferences given that the tweeting voices aren't the only voices). And I also get to share and reflect further on my teaching. So far so good. I'm also a technology researcher, so its important to and for me to be exploring these technologies and thinking about what they mean first-hand. Even better.

  6. Teaching content v. Professional development: Last but by no means least is the simple fact that I am generally trying to teach two things simultaneously: the content of the course (e.g., learning theory, learning technologies, etc.) and how to be a professional academic; how to be a teacher, researcher, and colleague. But how much time does one devote to each? My answer is to aim first for synthesis with the teaching of the content. Second, to be perfectly honest, I go with my pet peeves or my own recent experiences. Read a few too many manuscripts that don't do a good job of citing theory? I build in a reflective exercise to help my students think about citations. Attend an NSF review panel and learn quite a bit about the grant-writing process? I use grant writing as a way to push students to think about design in a way that will jive with the demands they will face when their applications are in front of a similar panel. And I do my best to treat the students like colleagues now. That's how my mentors worked and I appreciated it. I also know it paid off for me. So I'm returning the favor.

I am sure there are more, and I can already think of a few, but I'll leave those for next year. I will, however, wrap up by saying that I found it interesting, challenging, and helpful as ever to not only reflect on this past year, but to attempt to articulate it. I strongly encourage you to do the same regardless of whether or not you make your reflection a public artifact.

P.S. I was also asked how technology played a role in these shifts. The quick answer is that I see technology as just one aspect of the activity system, and always aim to think about the system as a whole so that I am integrating the technology thoughtfully. The longer answer will be a follow-up post.


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