Thursday, June 30, 2005

My guiding pedagogical questions

I have some questions that guide my assessment of a language (and by extension any) teacher. One quick question I find that reveals the appropriateness of a language teaching method is this:

"Could this same method work with parrots and achieve close to the same results?"

Another question I often ask is this:

"Would this teacher rather work with robots (instead of human students)?"

The answer to both these questions in many classes and programs is a resounding 'Yes!' I find these questions useful in assessing my own teaching, and the approaches of other teachers. They also provide a good rough basis for describing recurring problems in teaching. For example, to describe my frustrations with an aspect of my teaching, I could say: "My main problem with this teaching is that it's not clear that it would differ if you were teaching parrots." Or "My main issue with this teaching is that it seems you would rather work with robots--you seem to get frustrated at just the moments when robots would perform better."

Well, those are my guiding pedagogical questions--what are yours?


  1. Ben, I like your post. The two questions you use are good and very practical.
    In my little experience I think one question seems to decide how effective a certain teacher or teaching program is. How responsive is it to its students? I learned once that "every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it is getting." This can easily be applied to a teacher or a teaching method. Perhaps this is what you mean when you describe working with a computer program?
    Some teachers, when they do not get a desired response will continue on course as planned, or will try again in the exact same way, yet expecting different results, usually resulting in frustration. The question that I think is the most telling is how does that teacher respond to the initial failure? Does he/she adjust or plow ahead leaving his/her students in the dust or does the lesson plan change in order to serve the students needs?

  2. One of my guiding questions is: will this activity fill a whole 50 minutes, so none of my students will suspect that I secretly wish I were in my office checking my email?

    If the answer is yes, it will fit that 50 minutes, I can relax and feel like an awesome professor at an accredited university.

  3. Don't you think learning has to be student-interest driven? When I was teaching junior and senior high I found if I could include something they were interested in (i.e. themselves), they were most responsive. I found lesson plans were only a guide and being flexible was the only way real learning ever happened. Like improv.

  4. My guiding pedagogical question? Simply, can I pull this off? Conjunctive adverbs? yes. A superficial discussion of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? yes--if comtemporary references are included. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations? Not bloody likely. This question, you know, guides me.

  5. Salem: I like your guiding question. It reminds me of a hallmark of The Silent Way (a popular language teaching approach--but don't worry, it's not totally silent) the hallmark saying is this: "Teaching is subordinate to learning" That is, it does not matter how elegant a lecture, if the students aren't learning. As you say, it must be responsive to students. I had (and I think most people have had) a brilliant professor, well-published, lots of scholarly work, could not teach a lick, because he seemed oblivious to the students. Have you noticed teachers that seemed to be utterly responsive to students? Is it possible to be too responsive to students?

  6. Chris: Can't you get a blackberry? You should be able to check your e-mail in locations besides your office. An ideal class would be filled with activities for students and zero impression that the teacher is actually checking e-mail and composing blogs the entire period, agreed?

  7. Lisa: A book idea: Teaching as Improv. What do you think? Interesting that real learning, as you describe happens outside of the "lesson plan." Interesting that following the lesson plan is secondary to being flexible. I agree, it introduces some fun issues, for example, I imagine that a school wouldn't want to advocate that.

  8. Kacy: You can pull off conjunctive adverbs? And Frankenstein--with references?

  9. YES! One can be too responsive to students. I have been able to sidetrack several classes on numerous occasions, not on purpose, because the teacher was overly responsive to one student, me. However, if I had to choose I would pick a responsive teacher over a non-responsive one anyday. The teacher must know what exactly he/she is trying to teach, then walk with the student to the goal. Perhaps adjusting the pace, but must be able to hit the goal in the allotted time.

  10. There's a really good book on improv that states, ironically, you can't really teach it or name "rules" to achieve it. . . but it does give some "environments" to make it more likely successful.

    Yeah, no school system would ever advocate it, but its success is unquestionably one of the draws of home-schooling (which, as a general rule, I don't advocate), because it is individual student-interest based.

    I think teaching is a lot like acting: the really good ones have a talent that is difficult to learn/duplicate without a basic natural talent base. Do you agree?

  11. Be willing to change your mind. Don't be afraid to learn from your students.

    Thanks for making me think over summer break. :)

  12. Lisa: I am on the fence about the "you either have it or you don't" gene for teaching. First, I think I might disagree with many about who is a good teacher. For example, as you may or may not know, I don't think Fne. Maria from the Sound of Music is a good teacher. Related to this, I am often disturbed by charismatic, but ineffective teachers.

    I am also a big believer in methods. I think a large number of teachers could learn to use effective methodology, and this can have a powerful influence.

    I think of teaching as an art (bold, huh?) in the sense that there are a lot of ways to fail, and a lot of ways to succeed. But success involves a personality that genuinely attends to students and intelligently and effectively prods their growth. I would say that some people are more naturally genuinely attentive to others, and that is rad.