A good time to reflect on pedagogy: Book reviews

By Rick Clifton Moore
Boise State University

And Rebecca D. Frazer
The Ohio State University

Though many faculty and grad students think of summer as a time to take a break from the grind, or to try to make progress on that research paper that was put on the back burner in February, summer is also a wonderful time to think about teaching. So, perhaps when taking a break from gathering or analyzing data, you could throw a book on pedagogy into your beach bag (alongside one good pleasure-reading tome, of course).

With that in mind, we’d like to provide some quick insights into three books on college teaching that we’ve recently encountered.

Any of the three might just provide some great ideas to implement when back on campus in the fall. The topics of the three vary greatly, with one providing a research-based guide to overall best practices, the second presenting information on the use of technology in teaching, and the third offering insights into the inclusion of religion in the college curriculum.

What the Best College Teachers Do

By Ken Bain

Ken Bain’s award-winning book What the Best College Teachers Do blends empirical research with engaging anecdotes as it explores the shared values and practices of outstanding college teachers. Although it could not be considered a comprehensive how-to manual for college teaching, it serves as a meaningful guide to improving teaching skills for beginning and seasoned teachers alike. Basing his work on qualitative research analyzing 63 exceptional college instructors and their students and colleagues, Bain identifies common traits of success and incorporates those traits into six key questions about excellent teachers.

First, Bain asks, what do the best teachers know about how we learn? Bain argues that by truly caring about the interests of their students and inspiring students to formulate good questions and engage the material, teachers can help students construct knowledge, not just memorize.  Unlike rote memorization, learning formulated through deep thinking and engagement will last far beyond the end of the term.  Bain shares practical strategies for promoting deep levels of engagement, emphasizing the importance of harnessing students’ motivation.

Second, how do the best prepare to teach? Bain introduces a series of 13 questions gleaned from successful teachers that he believes teachers should ask as they prepare for a class. While the questions range from course goals to communication strategies to grading policies, each answer is distinctly student-focused. Bain systematically argues that successful teachers care enough to prepare well and anticipate the needs of their students, while also being willing to adjust their approach as the semester advances.

Third, what do the best teachers expect of their students? In short, Bain’s research reveals that the best teachers expect “more” from their students. But “more” should not be confused with meaningless difficulty. Bain observes that students succeed when they are motivated by a real-world connection with the material. Further, students are fueled by the faith teachers express in their pupils’ ability to learn and succeed. Ultimately, Bain concludes that teachers’ expectations of students rest on their fundamental understanding of human nature. He writes, “The best teachers believe that learning involves both personal and intellectual development and that neither the ability to think nor the qualities of being a mature human are immutable” (pg. 83).

Fourth, how do they conduct class? Rather than taking a side in the “to lecture or not to lecture” debate, Bain argues that the best teachers share an ability to create a critical learning environment in whichever class format they choose. Sparking curiosity, provoking students to think, and involving students in the problem-solving process are all crucial components of successful class time.  While perhaps not surprising, Bain’s chapter makes a strong argument that in any field, effective classroom teaching is founded on a deep commitment to critical learning, not on a rigid set of pedagogical rules. Yet despite his thematic focus, Bain also provides a number of invaluable practical tips for teaching styles and exercises.

Fifth, how do they treat their students?  Through a series of poignant examples, Bain demonstrates that excellent teachers fight for the trust of their students. This type of devotion involves more than simply being kind. Instead, humility, openness, devotion of time, and a rejection of all power-hunger characterized the teachers Bain examined. “The best teachers we studied,” Bain writes, “displayed not power but an investment in the students.”

Sixth, how do they evaluate their students and themselves? In his final section, Bain offers perhaps his most provocative advice: stop enforcing deadlines with grade penalties. Bain argues that appealing to peer respect or personal development produced better results than more draconian point penalties for late assignments.  Further, Bain discusses the importance of formulating tests that reward critical thinking and skill mastery, not simply regurgitation of memorized course material. Bain also explores the crucial importance of teachers evaluating themselves, advising that instructors go above and beyond departmentally required evaluations to seek feedback from their students in creative ways.

Overall, Bain’s work is impressive in his combination of careful research with powerful anecdotes. Each of Bain’s answers to his six big questions leads back to the simple yet powerful concept of student-focused teaching, challenging the narcissistic culture that is known to threaten the academy. For new and experienced teachers alike, Bain’s book provides a much-needed dose of inspiration and practical advice for teaching excellence.

Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning

By Jose Antonio Bowen

The first thing to note about this book is that faculty should not attempt to make adjustments to how they teach based solely on the first two words of the title. Removing clothing is not part of this process. “Teaching naked” is the term the author uses for the quality face-to-face interaction that good faculty have used for centuries. That could include lecture, but more importantly, critical dialog between faculty and students. Bowen argues, however, that technology is posing a significant threat to this beloved tradition, but also can save it.

The threat, Bowen suggests, is the growing presence of online learning. In the future, as more and more online degrees become available, prices for higher education will probably drop. In addition, some students will focus merely on learning, and not on the credentials that come from an accredited degree. Thus, most state and regional institutions of higher education will have much stiffer competition, and will have to deliver their material more efficiently. More than that, they’ll have to prove that students are learning from those brilliant profs to whom they are paying a premium—relative to the market—for their expertise.

Those profs, says Bowen, should spend as much of their class time as possible demonstrating their expertise. More importantly though, they should inspire students, and help with critical thinking in relation to their class content. This requires students work through some of the more rudimentary aspects of learning outside of class. Thus far, then, what Bowen is proposing is merely another example of “flipping the classroom,” something many have proposed for years. For example, the prof might post the lecture on YouTube, and expect students to watch it before class rather than sitting through it in class. Once in the face-to-face environment, the focus should be on “interaction, integration, and deep processing” (p. 115).

Bowen takes this a step further than flipping the classroom, though. He argues that today’s students are so internet-oriented that faculty are missing out if they don’t find a way to use any/all digital technologies to learn outside of class. For example, he suggests faculty might use Twitter to ask students about material they are studying. “A tweet will reach students immediately, wherever they are and whatever they are doing.” He gives numerous other examples throughout the book.

Of course, the example just mentioned helps readers recognize one potential shortfall of Bowen’s approach: if faculty kick technology out the door of the classroom, but then invite it into the education process 24/7 between class periods, when do students and faculty find time to rest from learning?

In addition, we might note that—in spite of the book’s title—Bowen eventually devotes only one chapter in the book to true “naked teaching,” the time spent in class. There, he fully admits that “college is boring.” Here, too, we might thank Bowen for introducing some issues that all college educators must face. To what extent do the technologies we use bear some responsibility for increasing the general sense of boredom among students, and even faculty? Many years ago, Neil Postman suggested that the primary result of the age of television was that it created citizens who feel the constant need for stimulation. If he was correct, to what extent do YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter exacerbate that? And, to what extent does a reliance on those technologies for a significant part of the college education process actually increase the expectancy of constant thrill among students?

Encountering Faith in the Classroom: Turning Difficult Discussions into Constructive Engagement

Miriam Rosalyn Diamond (ed.)

This book, a compilation of essays from faculty at a wide variety of U.S. colleges and universities, may be of interest to members of RMIG, as it specifically addresses the perils and possibilities of bringing discussion of faith into the classroom. For those new to teaching in the area of religion/media, the book may provide valuable insights. Seasoned RMIG faculty may find that they have considered most of the implications the scholars in this volume provide.

Introductory sections of the book offer a wide variety of data regarding American higher education, and faith perspectives of U.S. students. There is a lot of potential here, as the sections may include research of which even seasoned religion researchers are unaware. On the down side, the book was published in 2006, so the data, depending on the specific questions asked, may no longer be very reflective of cultural realities.  For example, much of the information is from the 2005 HERI study of first-generation college students. In a few years, we’ll find that the students entering our classrooms for fall term were not born when the data for that particular study were gathered.

More than being a book with useful information for research, though, this work might be better as a conversation-starter for faculty at all schools, regardless of discipline. As a “group-read” among faculty, with open discussion following, the essays might provide some rich insights into the assumptions about religion we all bring to the classroom, and the practices we have developed for dealing with conflicts that inevitably arise when people with different faith patterns are required to learn new material. Indeed, many of the assumptions authors of the book bring to the table, and the recommendations they make for dealing with religion are thought-provoking in and of themselves.

For one thing, there seems to be a recurring imagery in the book that suggests faculty views of religion and their ability to converse about it are radically different from those of students. Throughout, religiously oriented students are portrayed as having been tossed to and fro by their religious teachings, whereas faculty views are the product of “the principles of rational discourse.”

To provide one example, a chapter on fundamentalist students suggests they have a “dualistic” mindset, which the author describes as having an attitude that there is a “we” who are right, and “others” who are wrong. At a certain point in her chapter, the author clearly communicates that moving students away from such a mindset is a good thing. For example, she suggests that a dualistic mindset is not to be “displaced,” but rather is “modified out of existence.” The odd thing, of course, is that the author seems to be saying that most faculty at the contemporary university (“us”) are not fundamentalists, and that fundamentalist students (who, ironically, can be identified as “others”) are wrong. Another chapter, on the relationship between cognitive dissonance and teaching about religion devotes significant attention to how religiously oriented students will experience dissonance when presented with new material, but devotes little or no attention to how faculty might do so. There are hints at the end of the chapter that the instructor might be a learner, too, but no discussion of the possibility faculty members will have their world view shaken by new information.

If faculty did indeed use this book for a discussion group, this last point could be a clear avenue for fruitful dialog. After all, as has been mentioned, the world we are teaching in is probably already radically different than the world at the beginning of this millennium. Given that, a significant portion of reader discussion could relate to ways that the book needs updating. For example, the work makes very few references to Islam. This lacuna might provide faculty an opportunity for critical thinking. To what extent are the book’s discussions related to “fundamentalists” readily applicable to the increasing number of Muslim students entering the academy in the United States? Or, perhaps less contentious, to what extent do students who increasingly claim to be “spiritual, but not religious” represent similar challenges to those the book attributes to students who have been brought up in traditional (typically Christian) religious bodies with formal catecheses?

Those, and other good questions, tend to suggest themselves in these three books. Perhaps summer is a good season to devote some time to thinking about them.

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