Cooperative Culture in Teaching

Apr 18 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I’ve mentioned before (on my blog, anyway) that I used to be an instructor for my city’s CERT program.  I got a glimpse of some of the other CERT programs in the county, and I have to say, ours was superior.  (The county emergency manager agreed with my assessment.)

Because who wouldn't want to do this sort of stuff for fun?


And why was that?  It wasn’t because we had a different course of study: that was pretty much dictated by FEMA.  No, it was superior because of our instructors.


And why did we have superior instructors? Not because “the boss” (our city’s emergency manager) hand-picked only the best teachers, but because of the way we instructors were trained.  We were, first and foremost, interested in making sure we were the best instructor team around.  Here’s how that worked.


First, new instructors had a training period of one class series—eight sessions—in which they were observers.  They would help with hands-on stuff (when you have 35 people trying to practice splinting an arm for the first time, many helpers are a good thing) but otherwise they were told to focus on the way the material was being presented, and how it could be improved.


After each session, after the students had left and we’d cleaned up, we’d all sit around and discuss how the class had gone.  The first order of business:  “What worked?”  Only after we had talked about the positives did we get around to the second part, “What didn’t work?”  I’ll get more into detail about this discussion later.


The point was this: your first duty as an “instructor” was to pay attention to the students, to see how they reacted to lecture/activities/whatever.  From the beginning, it was established that the students’ learning was the number one priority.


During their second class series, instructors either got to teach, or team-teach, a topic.  If it was a big topic (like ‘Incident Command System’), they’d usually get a smaller—but still distinct—part, whereas a smaller topic (‘Assessment of Building Safety’) would be completely theirs.


Several weeks before teaching the instructors would get a copy of the old Powerpoint, and they were free to tweak it as they wished.  Usually the first draft would be evaluated by the boss—she had to make sure we were meeting FEMA standards—but instructors were given considerable leeway in how they taught.  (I know that I ripped apart the presentation I was given and completely revamped it.)


And after teaching your class, there was (of course) the post-class evaluation.


“What worked?”


The instructor committee members were very free with praise.  “I like the way you…”  “You did a great job with…”  “The changes you made to that section really clarified things.”


“What didn’t work?”


And this was where, I think, the culture of our instructor committee really encouraged growth.  Because, you see, the answers were phrased like this:  “People seemed to be having a hard time understanding [a particular section].  How can we tweak it to make it more understandable?”


In other words: praise was given freely to you as an instructor, because you had accomplished something good.  But if there was a problem, it was the whole team’s responsibility to fix the problem.  The more experienced instructors would coach you through your difficulties.


For example, one of the more experienced instructors said, after my first go around, “You seem to say ‘OK’ an awful lot when you’re pausing to think.  How can we help you get past that?  I’ve found that practice helps me to avoid phrases like that.  Would you like me to be your audience when you practice?”


Before I started my tenure as a CERT instructor people told me I was a good teacher, and I never disagreed with them.  But after two years working in this sort of cooperative, uplifting environment, I had improved immeasurably.  I’m not saying that I’m perfect now when it comes to teaching; far from it.  But in addition to having better pedagogical skills, I also have become very self-evaluative.  At the end of a lecture, I’m aware of what worked for the class and what didn’t work, and I ask myself how I could make it better next time.


This cooperative teaching culture is something I’d like to see more of in academia. But when, before starting grad school, I mentioned this to my father (an award-winning teacher/professor himself), he rolled his eyes and told me not to get my hopes up. “That’s just not the way things work,” he said, shaking his head.


So, OK, that’s not the way they work right now.  But why can’t they be that way in the future?  What would it take to transition to that sort of culture?  I think there are four crucial components:


(1) It would help if professors spoke a common language.


I’m not talking about English vs. Spanish:  I’m talking about pedagogical jargon.  It would be nice if there were a few key papers on educational theory that everyone in the department had read.  Or maybe a short book. (McKeachie’s “Teaching Tips” comes to mind.)


(2) The teacher must be willing to change, must have a desire to improve.


Some people, when faced with the cold hard truth that they are imperfect, get very irritated.  Folks, lighten up.  We are all imperfect.  Accepting that does not make you weak: it makes you human.  And acceptance of your flaws is necessary before improvement is possible.


(3) Evaluators must learn to give honest praise.


This is true not only when evaluating teachers, but also learners.  Always begin evaluations with a list of things you liked.  I have yet to see a performance in which nothing has been done right.  It’s theoretically possible, but highly unlikely.


Beginning with a list of what went right will not only reinforce those good behaviors, but also make the one being evaluated more receptive to hearing criticism later.  (This is very related to a past post of mine in which I gripe about people who say they're just being honest.)


(4) Evaluators must learn what the phrase “constructive criticism” really means.


Most people call any criticism “constructive”—because, if you listen to all the things that are wrong with you, you’ll change for the better.  Right?  Um, no.  In most cases, criticism works to alienate the one being criticized.  It does not inspire change.


The key to making criticism constructive is to make sure that you, the evaluator, are helping with the “construction.”  You are not trying to tear the other person down, you are just helping them to see another point of view.


It helps to explain that part of the problem may be a fundamental mismatch between two thinking styles:  “You did a good job showing the derivation of the Nernst equation, but I kept getting caught up in what the terms meant from a physical point of view.  I think there might be students who feel the same way.  Is there a way you could add that information to the lecture?”


Unspoken subtext:  It’s not that you’re not smart.  It’s that those things don’t come as intuitively to me as they do to you.


It also helps to get the person’s input on how improvement can be made:  “I noticed that a lot of students were scratching their heads and looking puzzled in that middle section.  Did you catch what, exactly, they were confused about?  How might you fix that?”


Unspoken subtext:  You are smart and capable enough to figure out how to do things yourself.  I’m just here as a facilitator.


Finally, remember that you are there to help build, not tear down.  “What can I do to help you fix this problem?” is a good generic question, but I like offering specifics instead:  “Would you like to have a brainstorming session sometime on analogies you could use to explain entropy?”


Unspoken subtext:  You could probably figure this out on your own, but I would love to help you.


In short, creating a culture of cooperation in academia is going to take a heck of a lot of work.  But I think it would be worth the effort.

One response so far

  • scicurious says:

    "Most people call any criticism “constructive”—because, if you listen to all the things that are wrong with you, you’ll change for the better. Right? Um, no. In most cases, criticism works to alienate the one being criticized. It does not inspire change."

    This is SO true. I have begun to really notice when criticism is constructive and when it isn't, and it makes such a difference in how you're willing to change! Criticism that's just delivered in the kind of "this is good for you" format often ends up making the person feel attacked and get defensive.