*Or How I Learned I Wasn’t 1/2 the Teacher
I Thought I Was

So I haven’t posted here for a hot minute. I’ve been really busy, but I’ve also been dealing with a sort of existential crisis. I read the book How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. and it rocked my world. The book synthesizes the latest research from the scholarship of teaching and learning, cognitive psychology, and the like. It’s tremendous and should be required reading for all teachers. But why the existential crisis?

For better and for worse, teaching is my obsession. I started this blog because I wore out my friends and family talking about my classes constantly. Over time being a “good teacher” became a central component of my identity.

When I started this blog there was a constant voice in my head saying, “Who are you to tell anyone anything about teaching? Just who do you think you are?” I overcame this anxiety by pouring myself in my work and seeking external validation of my work. If my students gave me good evaluations, I must be a good teacher. If my colleagues, my mentors, and my department chair said I was a good teacher, then I must be. If I write a blog post about a pedagogical technique and it gets a lot of page view, tweets, etc., then that must mean it’s a good idea.

There was a moment where, I wasn’t sure I had that much left to blog about because, “my classes are going so well!” I felt like I was starting to reach “black belt” status as an educator and I was honestly worried I was starting to reach the upper bound on what I could learn about teaching sociology. In retrospect, I’m ashamed I let my ego get the better of me- that I didn’t see the folly in my hubris let alone my delusions of grandeur.

Reading How Learning Works

I opened How Learning Works hoping to pick up a few tips and to verify that the pedagogical approach I was currently using was built on a solid empirical foundation. Instead, I found myself dumbfounded by a question that I hadn’t until then asked myself, “Who am I designing my class for?” As I read about all the issues students face when trying to learn, I realized that for the most part I’d never even considered these issues when designing my class. I modeled best practices I’d picked up from my mentors and implemented some strategies I gleaned from Teaching Sociology, but by in large I designed my class with only one person in mind… me.

At some point I realized that the only thing I could control completely was myself. If I over prepared, if I perfected my lecture notes, if I found multimedia that reinforced my message, then I could rest assured that the class would be good. Or if it failed, I couldn’t be held responsible; I did my part. So without consciously making the decision, I decided to focus all of my energy and preparation inward. In doing so, I designed my classes to best serve my needs and then subsequently my students.

The radical idea that I took from How Learning Works is, I should be designing my classes for my students. To be clear, it’s not like I didn’t consider student learning before I read the book, but if we looked at where I was spending most of my time, it was on preparing myself on the content I wanted to deliver. The stars of my classes was the sociological content and me. But if I am to be focused on student learning, then my teaching is at best a precursor.

Another huge take away from the book was, I have no idea if my students are learning. Sure I assess student learning periodically on tests, papers, but on any given day in class, I had no idea if the methods I used in class actually affected student learning in any real way. Assessment has become a yucky word to many academics, but I think if we’re serious about learning we really must embrace the idea. With this in mind I start and end almost every class with some sort of in class writing assignment. In between classes it’s easy to flip through their writing and identify common misconceptions or misapplications and then tweak the next class to address those issues.

I plan on discussing all of the revelations I had while reading How Learning Works and all of the ways it’s changed me as a teacher, but in the interest of keeping this post reasonably short, I’ll stop myself from doing it here. Today I just want to tell you how great of an impact it had on me and hope that inspires you to read it yourself.

Where to from here?

So now I’m back here on Soc Source, but I return a different person. I’m unconfident. I’m trying to shift away from my “sage on the stage” days and toward an approach that centers on student learning. Instead of taking a command and control approach I’m trying to develop one that assesses my student’s learning and adjusts on the fly. I’m trying to figure out what it means to embrace a SoTL approach to teaching and how to do it.

I hope that this doesn’t read as self-indulgence, because that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote this to come clean to all of you. I’m not the teacher I thought I was. After reading How Learning Works I can see just how much I have yet to learn. I’m just starting to wrap my mind around SoTL and how I am going to become a teacher focused on student learning. I’ve only been working at this for a few months now, but I already have so much to tell you about what I’ve been learning. I’ve shifted course and I hope you’ll want to come with me on this journey.

“As the island of our knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance”

-John Archibald Wheeler