The social element of learning about effective teaching strategies

November 9, 2012, 7:00 am

Speaking of faculty adopting research-based instructional strategies, Theron Hitchman (who blogs at Circles and Tangents) wonders aloud in the direction of math education researchers: Why didn’t you tell me? That is, referring to research-based instructional strategies that seem to work really well with students,

Why do I stumble on these things only to find that they have been understood for decades? Why didn’t someone knock on my door and tell me I was doing it wrong?

My basic point is this: If you do research on teaching and learning, you owe it to society to share what you know. Scholarly publication doesn’t count. The mathematics education community talking to itself is a necessary condition for sorting out the truth of things, but it is insufficient for educating the public and for changing practice on a large scale.

If you know that the standard lecture-homework-exam format is much less effective generally than an active, student-centered classroom, then how do you not shout from every rooftop that things have to change?

Theron’s point is well taken, and it’s exactly what Henderson et al. found: Publishing about effective teaching strategies in journals is somewhat effective in getting others to become aware of and adopt those strategies, but not as effective as going to workshops, and that’s not as effective as one-on-one interaction with a person who uses such methods.

So why don’t these interactions happen more often? As I mentioned last time, Henderson et al. have some results on that, and this is also going to be an aspect of my work next year with our NSF grant. The comment thread at Theron’s post has a good discussion going on this as well. One of the predominant thoughts at least applied to the mathematicians is: Mathematicians just don’t want to hear about this stuff. They were taught by the Big Names In The Field, who (unless it was R. L. Moore) taught exclusively by lecture and if it was good enough for the Big Names then it’s good enough for me. The entrenchment is deep.

A lot of this simply boils down to institutional culture. If your department and university value effective teaching to the extent that it’s written in your contract, figures prominently in promotion and tenure reviews, and serves as a reason to get time and resources from the university as they come available, then it is very likely that research-based instructional strategies will make their way to you. Otherwise, you have a lot of work on your own to do.

What strikes me about Theron’s post and Henderson’s research is how important social networks are in effective teaching. The electronic ones seem to be at least as important as the face-to-face ones — witness Theron’s post and all the comments it received, and I could give a long list of great interactions and opportunities I’ve had thanks to this blog and Twitter — and having a robust network of commited teachers in both the electronic and real-life realms provides the best base of all. Teaching and learning are inherently social activities and it’s no surprise that it takes social interactions to come into contact with the best practices. (Which might explain why mathematicians have such a hard time with that. Kidding! Sort of.)

My advice to those who feel like they are the only ones who are interested in these kinds of things is to reach out. There are probably lots of people on your own campus who are feeling the same way. Get together and identify, and sharpen each other. Do the same online. I think students benefit in the end, and that’s all that really matters.

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