These Videos Could Change How You Think About Teaching

August 27, 2015

Going to lunch with students changed Michael Wesch’s attitude about teaching, and he is trying to share his personal transformation through a series of videos he hopes will go viral.

Mr. Wesch is an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University who has won some of the highest honors for his work in the classroom, including a national professor-of-the-year award in 2008. Yet a couple of years ago, he "got into a funk" about teaching, he says. After many years covering the same material, he was worried things were getting too routine.

And then there was the student who kept falling asleep during his lectures. Every class. That confirmed all his worst fears that he was no longer connecting.

"When I first started teaching, I was 29," he says, and it was easy to relate to the students who took his introductory course. Now he’s in his 40s, and he realized he had lost touch with where his students were coming from.

So Mr. Wesch asked the sleeping student out to lunch. And he learned that, far from being a slacker, the student had been working late into the night designing his own videogame. That recalibrated the professor’s thinking, and he started looking for ways to draw out the student’s creativity in class rather than assume he had checked out. And now he regularly asks students to lunch.

This story is movingly told in an animated three-minute video Mr. Wesch released on Wednesday as part of his new site, My Teaching Notebook.

He is working on more short videos — they’re essentially visual op-eds — to post, all of them about his philosophy that college teaching should focus on transforming the learner.

If history is any guide, the videos will go viral. Mr. Wesch’s 2007 video, "A Vision of Students Today," has been viewed more than five million times, and another video released that year, about Web 2.0, has attracted nearly 12 million views.

The latest videos are more sophisticated than the professor’s previous creations — though like the earlier ones they feel homemade, in a good way, in that they brim with emotion and authenticity. The professor taught himself animation for the latest project, which he says reminded him of the joy of learning.

The Heart of Teaching

For a while Mr. Wesch was a poster child for how to use digital tools in teaching. He won a Rave Award from Wired magazine and an "Emerging Explorer" recognition from National Geographic. Then a couple of years ago, when he was in that funk, he started worrying that too much focus was being put on the technology rather than other aspects of teaching.

He still dives into challenging technology in his teaching. Last semester, for instance, he had students create a videogame about life in a nearby nursing home as the final group project in one of his anthropology courses. But the focus of Mr. Wesch’s new site is to talk about the heart of teaching, not the mechanics of his digital experiments. As he put it, he’s interested in encouraging teaching that focuses on "transforming the learner."

Nick Timmons, who has taken several courses from Mr. Wesch and served as a teaching assistant for him as well, said that one thing that makes the professor unique is his willingness to show emotion and make himself vulnerable during class.

"He tears up in class. He brings up things that he’s not sure about. That allows him to go to that place where he has to be really human, so students have to be really human," Mr. Timmons says. "The fact that he was so willing to reveal his emotions about the subject matter made it OK for students to have emotions about it, and those emotions ended up being what drove them to do well in the class."

Mr. Timmons has spent quite a bit of time trying to understand what makes Mr. Wesch’s teaching work: He wrote his master’s thesis about the professor’s anthropology course.

He feels that the thing other professors can learn from Mr. Wesch is not a set of practices, but a way of thinking about teaching, even a way of being in the classroom.

"What really is our role as professors?" he asks. "Is our role to simply give out information and people will use it as they wish? Or is our role to honestly and truly help guide people to be who they are and how they will live their life?" Mr. Wesch’s message is that it’s the latter. "Most professors would say that their proudest moments come from those office chats with students and things that come outside the class," says Mr. Timmons.

Of course, a mind-set is harder for a college to encourage than a new kind of high-tech teaching approach. "It’s easier to sign up for Canvas or whatever new technology is out there and say that you’re a progressive school with really good teaching methods," he says.

A Lenient Approach to Grading

Later this week Mr. Wesch plans to post another video to the site, about his "not yet" philosophy of grading.

He tells his students that they shouldn’t worry about grades, and that they will get an A in the course unless he notifies them that their work is not strong enough to deserve it. In those cases their grade is "not yet," and he gives them a chance to try again. "I just let them do it over and over until they get it."

Even with that leniency, he says he still gives out a range of grades, when he actually does use the regular grading scale and the "not yets" are converted to letter grades, per university policy. Even though students get the chance to try multiple times, not all of them make it to the A. "No matter how hard you work" as a teacher, he adds, "there are still going to be some students who are going to be struggling."

Johann N. Neem, a professor of history at Western Washington University, says the grading approach reminds him of a tutorial model, where each student is given a personal learning plan. The problem, though, is that "it’s very expensive" in terms of time, and for large classes it would not be feasible for most professors.

He says he looks forward to seeing Mr. Wesch’s videos and that like many professors, he is always trying to improve his teaching.

"We’re not all passively lecturing," Mr. Neem says. "I think that has become a stereotype. Many of us are trying to teach more effectively."

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads a team exploring new story formats. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at jeff.young@chronicle.com.