Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

for pedagogical pluralism

Most of what I’m about to say here seems to me quite obvious, and I suspect many of my readers will agree. But if so, then these ideas really ought to be more commonly put forth in debates about pedagogy, like the one I discussed in my previous post.

I believe in, and try to practice, pedagogical pluralism. When people argue about the relative value of lectures, discussions, flipped classrooms, and so on, I always want to ask: What’s the context here? Are we talking about high-school students, first-year college students, advanced college students, graduate students? What disciplines do we have in mind? There is no context-independent “best pedagogical strategy.” When people ask me what I think such a strategy might be my answer is always: It depends.

For instance: when I teach literature to first- and second-year college students we’re likely to have a good deal of discussion, but when I teach literary theory to more advanced students I will probably lecture most of the time. Why the difference? Because those younger students will probably have discussed literature in classes before, and will be comfortable with at least some of the most basic tools of literary criticism and evaluation; whereas even very smart students can be lost when they first encounter theory, because its vocabularies and discursive strategies are so alien to them. So I need to talk to them a good bit, at first, in order to orient them; then, when they know their way around, we can open more class sessions up for discussion.

Because my pedagogical strategies are context-dependent, and because contexts change over the course of the semester as students learn more (but also, sometimes, get more overwhelmed with work), I do ongoing formal and informal assessment of what my students in any given class are prepared to do. I give a great many reading quizzes, which we go over together in class, and I learn a lot from those quizzes about what my students know and don’t know. In both lecture-heavy and discussion-heavy class sessions, I will often stop and refuse to go any further until I get five questions from the class: through that practice I learn what they want to know. Equipped with such information, I can make better decisions about when to talk and when to let them talk.

Teaching is an art rather than a science, and much of the art lies in making adjustments to your strategies when things aren’t going well, or as well as you would like. But you’re only going to be aware of the need for adjustment if you’re really noticing what’s happening in front of you, and often, sad to say, teachers don't really care enough, are not sufficiently present in the room, to notice. As I’ve said in a somewhat different context, “Everything begins with attention.”


  • Math teacher, here. This post reminds me of Henri Picciotto's blog-essay on math education, Nothing Works.

    I have no illusions that I have found the ultimate approach to math teaching -- there is no such thing. In reality, nothing works. Nothing works for every student, every class, every teacher, every day. Thus, I need to know many things. I am increasingly skeptical of inflated claims, whether from traditionalists or reformers. As I learn new techniques, I don't throw away or rule out any old ones. Eclecticism is the philosophy of education that serves me best!"

    I don't think it's quite fair to connect how much one cares to how much one notices. Or at the least I think it's unfair to draw a direct connection. How much one cares has little to do with how much you can see in the moment, I believe.

    Instead, it seems to me that how much one sees depends one two things:
    (a) one's understanding of teaching
    (b) one's available attention

    If you don't have a concept of "status" and the way students act to protect or gain in status, you are unlikely to discover it on your own in the classroom. And even if you do have such a concept you're unlikely to see it if your mind is flooded with distractions.

    To see more in your teaching, you either improve your vision or reduce the clutter.

    To the extent that caring more can affect either of those variables, I can agree that caring impacts what you notice. But like many performance arts, the effort that matters is what happens before the show. You can't see more just by trying to.

    (Perhaps this is one of the things that makes poor teachers believe that they are great teachers. In the moment of teaching they care fully and completely. They see what they see and act on it. If only they knew what they were missing, for all their in-the-moment caring.)

    Incidentally, this post reminds me of Vicki Jacobs' work on professional teacher noticing.

  • This is very helpful indeed, Michael! Great stuff to be reading and thinking about.

  • Because teaching is an "art," as you say, and not a method, it requires flexibility, attention, suppleness, and judgment. But maybe this would true whether one were a pluralist or not. In other words, each pedagogical mode (lecture, discussion, coaching) might turn out to be a non-rule governed art all the way down.

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