Arming Faculty without Telling Them What to Do

By Day 1, new faculty need to know our students and how to reach them. They would need that kind of knowledge if we were Harvard, if we were a community college. No two campuses have the same demographics, so learning the different student bodies, characteristics, and learning preferences orients faculty to their new environment.

But I don’t tell faculty how to teach. They know better than I do how to teach their content. Any implication otherwise would be wrong and insulting.

I do provide faculty with teaching strategies. A simple cohort-building activity helps faculty acquire and assimilate the specific teaching strategies for those diverse student bodies — and this activity circumvents my “teaching” anyone anything.

Most strategies overlap for different demographics — like fostering a sense of classroom community in order to improve student-to-student knowledge transfer, socially incentivize attendance, and diversify classroom accountability structures. Participants encounter a short list of specific classroom activities, with their slightly different pedagogical intentions. And then we use think-pair-share: participants individually choose which activity they most likely would use and explain their reasoning to their neighbors.

The process of choosing only one forces the participants to evaluate and cognitively organize the options. Also, by selecting first and then discussing their reasoning, they activate multiple parts of their brains to access the same content, which increases the likelihood of their retaining that content. Participants also develop a vested interest in other people’s answers, and the in-depth discussion becomes a reflection activity that fosters metacognitive understanding. It also improves mutual understanding and peer relationships. The subsequent greater group discussion disseminates more information for improved reflection and understanding, but it also fosters a sense of cohort community. After an hour of tackling five strategies this way, the faculty see those five strategies in a list and take that list home with them. They’re also motivated, talkative, and reluctant to leave the conversation behind.

This activity is an example of how to help faculty develop new understandings, without boring them with a lecture or their perceiving the faculty developer as trying to rob them of their academic freedom. Regardless of the topic, look for opportunities to deliver information as tools — for socializing, problem-solving, designing a project … — not as endpoints. When information becomes the endpoint, it should become a handout; the interaction, only an email. Otherwise, we’re wasting both good will and everyone’s time.

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