Teaching and Performance 22

Teaching is hard.  Some people are naturally good at it, and others are naturally quick at developing good teaching skills.  For most of us, though, figuring out how to teach effectively is a real challenge.

As a professor, teaching is a central aspect of what I do for a living.  I’m deeply committed to teaching well.  And today, social and technological developments are changing the context of teaching and learning in significant ways.  So we have an obligation to rethink what we do in light of the new environment.  Yet I find it hard to talk about teaching with others, at least in the university context that I’m in.

So I’m trying something new.  I’ll post some thoughts in the hope of generating a conversation.  I welcome your thoughts and input.

The starting point for me is that teaching and performance are connected, but distinct. Giving a spellbinding lecture is performance.  It may be good teaching or bad teaching.  It has the advantage (most likely) of getting students to show up, pay attention, and perhaps remember something of the experience for a long time.  All of those are correlated with good teaching.  They aren’t themselves teaching. Think of a brilliant actor on stage or a great episode of a TV show.  You wouldn’t call that teaching. It’s performance.  You might learn something by watching, but the quality of the performance doesn’t necessarily indicate the quality of the learning. (And yes, I know that movies and games and other things can be designed to teach — I’m a gamification expert, after all! I’m talking about the normal ones designed primarily to entertain.)

Performance is an input; teaching is an output.  You can measure performance at the source, but you can only measure teaching at the receiver, which in this case is the student. As a consequence, performance is much easier to see than teaching. Any observer can see it. You can even see it by watching a recording.  It exists, at least in part, outside of the course.  Teaching doesn’t.

This distinction seems obvious to me, and yet most people I talk to seem to confuse performance and teaching.  And that’s a problem.  If we reward and encourage performance, we may not actually be encouraging good teaching.  In fact, we may redirect effort away from it, toward things that don’t necessarily advance learning.  This isn’t a new problem, or an unfamiliar one.  Basically every text on teaching in higher education published in recent decades criticizes the lecture and the content-delivery emphasis it promotes.  But the emphasis on performance is a particular problem in this age of MOOCs.

MOOCs make performance even more visible, while hiding teaching further.  Now the performances are available to anyone in the world through online video, and directly viewed by tens of thousands of eyeballs in the course.  It’s easy to compare good performers and bad performers side-by-side.  And the pre-recorded lecture structure (with the dominant xMOOC approach) removes the interactivity that’s present even in most in-person “lecture” courses, as well as the distraction of sitting in a room with other students.  The MOOC experience is just you the student, and the instructor on stage.  And students can vote with their clicks to a greater extent than in a university setting, rewarding the brilliant performers with larger numbers.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing.  In many ways, it’s a very good thing.  To be clear, I’m a proponent of MOOCs.  I think they can provide tremendous potential benefits for education, in many contexts. And I’ve taught a large MOOC, twice. In many ways that makes it easier for me to see the dangers they also create.  We need to view MOOCs as opportunities for experimentation, not magical solutions.  And among other things, we need to push back on our natural tendency to view their pedagogical effects purely from the standpoint of performance.

So here’s my personal problem.  I feel pretty confident that I’m good at performance.  I do a great deal of public speaking. I get plenty of positive feedback on my ability to convey concepts in an engaging way.  And my Gamification MOOC attracted a high number of students, very strong engagement/completion numbers, and great anecdotal responses.  All well and good.  In fact, those are things I’m proud of.  Yet they tell me little or nothing about how to teach effectively.  And the support resources I’ve found for improving teaching are really geared more toward improving performance.  I suspect that most university professors, having gone through PhD programs, are less comfortable with performance than teaching.  I’m the opposite.

Most of my teaching in my “day job” as a professor is in relatively small (20-70) classes, on topics that don’t emphasize mastery of formal concepts.  The students need to interact, and they need to apply knowledge.  I can’t get away with just performing.

So here’s the question I keep coming back to: how do I judge success?  How can I figure out what’s good teaching, not just good performance?  Because until I can answer that question, I find it immensely difficult to feel any sense of satisfaction in what I’m doing.

Good teaching means that students are learning.  But that’s just rephrasing the question.  How do I know if students are learning?  I can see how it might be possible to answer that question in subjects where there’s a well-developed, structured set of concepts that students need to master, generations of students have mastered, and instructors have seen students master time and again.  I don’t teach anything like that.  Any bar I set seems arbitrary: I’m just making up a target for students to hit.  It doesn’t tell me if I’m doing well or poorly as a teacher.

I think if I can develop a better answer to this question, it will make me more effective as both a classroom teacher and a MOOC instructor.  And it will help me understand where I can use the MOOC to enhance my in-person course on the same subject.  This is the benefit and the danger of the “flipped classroom” notion: it separates teaching and performance to a large extent.  If the students watch the performance on video at home the night before, what they experience the next day in the classroom had better be teaching.  That’s a scary thought.

Am I looking at this the right way?  For those of you who teach, how do you decide what constitutes success in a course? What resources were helpful to you in answering that question?