ISA 2014: How do we teach about teaching?

It’s that post-panel moment for me here at ISA, at what is easily the largest conference I’ve presented at, if not the best attended session. As Amanda noted, we had a great range of presentations this morning, covering a wide range of what active learning is (and can be about).

However, it’s also a slightly different feeling this time, because I’m just about to present my paper again (possibly with fewer images of fruit). The ISA is trialling the filming of some of their Innovation Panels (of which we were one), with a view to posting those videos on the Association’s website as the beginnings of a resource for colleagues.

This is a logical step in the development of resources, from sites such as this one, or the one I’ve been running on resources for using simulations. We write about teaching and create some teaching materials, but video offers another channel for connecting with people.

However, as I’ve written about repeatedly here, the real trouble with teaching about teaching is that it is very hard to tell people about something that they need to experience. Thus, while I think the ISA’s experiment is a good one, it can only take us so far.

To illustrate, I’ve been reflecting on another Innovation Panel I attended yesterday. This one was a simulation of the UNSC, discussing a zombie crisis (using World War Z as a source text). It looked like a great game, with participants really getting into their roles. However, as an observer, I was very disconnected from the depth and the detail that the participants so clearly displayed. Put differently, I couldn’t have used that session (as it was presented) to run my own version.

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An image that will mean nothing to you, unless you attended my presentation, thereby proving the point of this post

Teaching about teaching is thus rather meta, in that you have to teach while simultaneously commenting on the teaching.

As is usual on these occasions, I’m not going to offer a solution, but only a suggestion.

To me, it seems that what we are asking those we teach about teaching is that they put themselves in the students’ shoes: what’s it like for the freshman who walks into your classroom? If we can do that, then we can much better appreciate the consequences of our pedagogical choices. That’s true, because it’s the learning that’s key, not the teaching. What I think of my teaching is largely irrelevant if my students don’t understand what’s happening.

And so it is with our workshops and conferences about learning. Too often we sit at the front of the room, reading our paper about our innovative and engaging practice in the classroom. Well, the conference room is also a classroom, so why isn’t it worth pursuing active learning there?

This doesn’t have to mean a problem-based learning session, where you make the participants discover from themselves your practices or findings. But it does mean thinking about how to catch and hold people’s attention.

The prize here is one of buy-in from colleagues. To go back to Amanda’s post, the final comment from the floor – from Simon Rofe – was that we have to go out and sell our work to our disciplines. That’s very true, but it’s much easier to do if we package our goods in more attractive ways.

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