Saturday, August 09, 2008

More on Teaching During the School Daze

Scot McKnight, a religious studies professor at North Park Univeristy in Chicago, recently posted some interesting thoughts about education and teaching on his blog. The reflections come from a blog review of Ken Bains's What the Best College Teachers Do.

With school starting soon, Scot's timely thoughts (although some of his questions and observations are more relevant to those who teach in church settings) give us all something to think about as we prepare for yet another year.

Part I:

The beginning of August means I read a book on teaching, and my pick this year has been all and much more than I expected. It is by Ken Bain and is called What the Best College Teachers Do. This book deserves to be in the library of every pastor and church educator; parents would do well to let it shape parenting. There are two basic approaches to education:

Some think it is “information download.” Teacher knows; teacher informs; student doesn’t know; student absorbs. Student answers tests; teacher grades. This is the teacher model.

Others think it is about “motivating students.” The teacher may be the knower, but the student is a learner. The teacher’s task is to design an environment that puts students in learning situations so they can learn, the teacher can give feedback, and then assess or evaluate the student. This is the learner model.

Questions for the teaching dimension of church ministry: Is the role of the pastor a teacher? Is preaching teaching? What happens if churches reshape their “educational” programs according to the “learning model”?

You may think the teacher model teaches learning, but it doesn’t. It imparts information and rewards memorization, etc., which has its place but it’s a long way from turning students into learners. What the learning model does is to shift responsibility from the teacher being the informer to the student being the learner. The latter is bingo! for genuine education. Yes, information is acquired — but in context. We learn by doing, not simply by listening.

The learning model asks what students can do with their learning; the teaching model asks what students can produce on an assessment/test. The evidence clearly shows that focusing on absorbing information will get clear evidence but there is a major dysfunction here: most information we absorb is not remembered and neither is it transfered into usable skills. Skills is where the big game is played.

Example: if you want to learn how to putt a left to right break on a golf green and someone tells you to keep your putter square and don’t open it up because it will put even more side spin on it, you might amass the information. But, real progress is measured by not only amassing information but being able to put the knowledge to use: did you open up your putter face on the left to right putt? Teacher models emphasize the knowledge of the teacher and the ability to download that information into students; learning models emphasize what students can “do” as a result of the course.

Apply this to the church: do you want parishioners to “know” theology or “do” theology? At home: do you want your kids to “know” right moral decisions or to be able to “do” right moral decisions? The answers to these two questions are obvious. What is amazing is that the predominant form of “education” in churches is the “teaching model” instead of the “learning model.” I could go on.

If you want a good example of the latter, this book is it.

What this book does is something I’ve not seen: it studies the best teachers. So, you ask, who are the best teachers? Good question. Here’s Bain’s answer: those who “achieved remarkable success in helping their students learn in ways that made a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel” (5). That is, they found teachers who had a substantial influence on students and figured out how they went about the business of teaching.

I’ll be sketching what good teachers do in the weeks ahead.


Part II:

The first question Ken Bain discusses in his book, What the Best College Teachers Do, is “what do good teachers know about how we learn?”

How about some feedback from pastors and Sunday School teachers about this stuff.

You’d be surprised how many teachers, pastors, and parents think that learning takes place in a simple two-step process:

The teacher figure (teachers, professors, pastors, parents) informs; The student absorbs and practices it.

And how many of them think that if Step One has been done (”I covered that, don’t you remember?”), Step Two is inevitable.

Wrong. Evidence proves that this is not how we learn.

Good teachers, pastors, parents know how people learn: we learn in context.

First, good teachers know the history of their discipline.
Second, good teachers cobble together from experience the rudiments of recognizing the best insights on how humans learn.

The key concepts Bain and his associates discovered are these:

1. Knowledge is constructed, not received: as we put things together on the basis of experience, so do students. So, teaching is helping students construct models on the basis of what they already know.

2. Mental models change slowly: good teachers create environments where change can take place progressively. Facts need to be learned as a student learns to use those facts. I recently had a pastor tell me this very thing: I’m giving folks time to think this through themselves. The authoritarian model and the learner model are not always friends!

3. Questions are crucial: good teachers stimulate students to discover and ask and answer their own questions. Our questions, we must remember, are not always the questions of others. Perhaps I should say this more forcefully: often our questions are not theirs!

4. Caring is crucial: good teachers know students must care about the discipline if they want those students to develop and grow and learn. Good teachers get students to care about the discipline.

Here’s another point this chp makes: external motivating factors, like good grades, can spoil the conditions of the internal dynamic of learning. How the students see the rewards shapes the whole process. If they feel they are being manipulated, learning decreases.

So he gives this kind of advice:

Avoid extrinsics; focus on intrinsics (the value of learning).
Give students as much control as possible.
Be interested in that student’s development.
Nonjudgmental feedback that can help students learn and improve.
Encourage cooperation and collaboration; minimize competition.
Give everyone the opportunity to achieve the highest standard and grade.

A final point — this is one of my lines: the difference is whether we are teaching a “subject” to students or teaching “students” a subject.

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