Teaching Innovation: Opportunities and Challenges

I just returned from a terrific visit to the UK – part vacation with my family, and part work.  The work part included a trip to University of Hull, to visit with my colleague Dr. Graham Scott (you may recognize his name as he visited McGill almost a year ago).  Graham and his Bioscience Education Group have an impressive track record of publishing about teaching in Higher Education, including papers about the value of field work in University.

I gave a seminar in the Biology Department at Hull about the use of social media and mobile technology in a field course I teach (St Lawrence Ecosystems), and I had plenty of time to discuss with Graham and his colleagues about teaching and the ways to improve teaching.  In this post, I wanted to reflect a little bit about some of the ideas that resonated strongly as I visited Hull.

My souvenir from Univ. Hull - a wool scarf.  It'll remind me of pedagogy and that's a good thing.

My souvenir from Univ. Hull – an official wool scarf. It’ll remind me of pedagogy and that’s a good thing.

1. It is important to talk about teaching.  Academics are very used to talking about our research, but we seldom get a chance to reflect in detail upon our own teaching.   When agreeing to give a seminar about my teaching, this caused me to seriously consider why I adopt specific strategies with my teaching, and whether or not these strategies actually work (i.e., impact learning!).  This presented many challenges, especially because I sometimes don’t fully know why I selected certain teaching strategies, and I began to recognize that some of my own teaching strategies come from trial and error.  A solution to this is my second point of reflection:

2. I should be reading the education literature.  Graham is deeply involved with pedagogy and publishes often in the education literature.  When discussing teaching ideas with him, he would often tell me how that particular idea was well discussed in paper X, Y, or Z.  It takes a lot of energy to change teaching approaches and strategies, and it takes a lot of risk – things just might not work and this has real and important consequences for students, and for the instructor.  Reading the education literature could help to avoid reinventing the wheel, and also help guide the development of teaching strategies.  I’m going to try to find a bit of time to get into this literature – I am sure it will be time well spent.

3. Teaching innovations cross disciplines.  This seems obvious, but I think it’s easy to forget that we can learn a great deal about teaching from colleagues from very different background and disciplines.  I had lunch with a microbiologist from Hull and she told me about her use of short, weekly, private ‘blogs’ from students.  She used these reflective blogs as one way to assess how students were getting along with content, and as a way for students to benchmark their course goals (and whether or not they met their goals).  These short posts were a great idea for her to assess whether students were on track in the course, how they were handling the course material, and whether her expectations were reasonable.  This great idea did not depend on discipline.  Another good reason to embrace interdisciplinarity.

4. My challenges are common challenges.  It was incredible to see that despite different systems between the UK and Canada, different undergraduate programs, and an entirely different context, the challenges of teaching remain similar. It’s comforting to know that everyone struggles with finding the right way to assess students with large classes without depending on multiple choice exams, or how to help students improve writing skills, or how to convince administrators that there is value to field biology courses.   So many challenges are shared, and we can learn a great deal from each other…all the more reason to talk about teaching more often, both within our own institutions and among institutions.

5. We must find systems that enable Academics to work on innovative teaching ideas.  There are numerous, excellent arguments for Academics to work on teaching innovation, but it’s not entirely clear how to go about this.  Many institutions have “teaching and learning” units that help Professors with strategies to improve teaching, but many of the workshops or services offered by these units are short in duration, and don’t typically involve deeper projects about pedagogy.  A secondment at a “teaching and learning” unit might be a good idea but this would only be possible if an Academic on such a secondment was given relief from other duties (e.g., applying for research grants, or administrative duties).  Alternatively, it is possible to devote a sabbatical to pedagogy, but this would require a culture shift since sabbaticals are most often linked to research interests that don’t normally involve pedagogy. I do believe strongly that taking ‘real’ time to improve teaching would be valuable, but I will be honest in saying that I don’t see a clear path forward with this.  Ideas are welcome.

In sum, my visit with Graham Scott and colleagues offered a chance to reflect on teaching, discuss teaching, and allowed time to really think about the opportunities and challenges when considering different ways to modify and hopefully improve my own teaching.  I sincerely thank Graham Scott and his colleagues at Hull for being an inspiration, and a model.

Let’s keep the discussion going, and please share your thoughts.