Teaching as Learning 4

A couple months ago I posted on teaching and performance.  Here’s another perspective on the same broad topic. I started writing it a while back, but never finished. It answers many of the questions I posed in my other post.  I just don’t think I found those answers convincing.  

Teaching is a form of learning.

When I teach a course, the best way I’ve found to measure success is asking myself at the end whether I figured out what the course was really about.

Like most beginners, I assumed for years that the essence of a course was its content. As I started to read about pedagogy, I was realized this was dead wrong. The content is the last thing to start with when designing a course.  Pretty much any book you read about teaching in higher education makes this point.

But still something was missing. The first question in backwards course design is, “what do students need to know?” This question stopped me completely. I simply couldn’t answer it. Yes, I was the expert, the one designing the course. And yes, I accepted that courses should be about outputs rather than inputs. Yet somehow, asking what students should learn felt like smashing into a brick wall. I was stuck.

Then I realized why.

I can’t possibly decide ahead of time what students need to know or what the course can teach them.  That’s something that has to emerge from the alchemy of teaching and learning.  It’s the part of education that you can’t get from a textbook, or Wikipedia, or Khan Academy, or perhaps, a MOOC. It’s the co-creation that occurs between an instructor and students, and more importantly, between students and each other.  A good teacher facilitates a conversation that generates one or more core lessons. A great teacher picks up on what those are, and makes them the focus of learning. None of that exists in the aether before the course begins.

The kind of teaching I’m describing involves the very real possibility of failure.  This is teaching as high wire act.  There is no guarantee even a master teacher can curate a learning conversation to a point of convergence.  A class whose success cannot be determined by what’s on the syllabus is a class that may turn out to be a waste of time, at least for some of the participants.

The possibility of failure is a feature, not a bug.  Failure, as we know, is a key part of learning.  Only when we can fail are we reaching beyond ourselves. (Those who know more than I do about learning theory can insert a reference here to Vygotsky’s concept of proximal development.)  At the same time, it is only when failure doesn’t seem scary that we are willing to experiment.  That is one reason games are such exceptional learning tools.  They invite us to try and fail, and fail, and fail, until we eventually succeed. You can always start over with another life or a new session of the game.

I think I’m still too afraid of failing as a teacher to open myself up to real learning.  Paradoxically, that makes it more likely that I’ll fail, or at least find my teaching experiences unsatisfying.

Perhaps one reason I found my MOOC teaching in front of tens of thousands of students less scary than interacting in person with a few dozen of them is that we all knew going in that the MOOC was an experiment which could fail, and which the students at least could easily abandon.