effective teaching and learning
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Making Sense of Teaching in Difficult Times
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The ten chapters in this volume first appeared as a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education (2013). Each author is situated in particular classroom and institutional contexts ranging from South Africa to Australia, from Denmark to China and Canada, from the United Kingdom to the United States. Their expertise is far reaching. Although none of the contributors are in the areas of theology or religious studies, the questions raised and addressed in this volume center on strategies for effective teaching and learning. Collectively, these chapters supply a snapshot of the challenges and promises facing instructors of higher education. As a result, there are several potentially relevant sites for reflection and application.
Grouped thematically, student-centered chapters highlight raising awareness of White Privilege (chapter 1) and of global citizenship through on-campus threshold-crossing experiences (chapter 3), undergraduate research (chapter 4), and social justice (chapter 8). More instructor-centered chapters confront the role of self-reflective practices (chapter 2), and of online education (chapter 10). Curricular chapters focus on inter-disciplinarity in an engineering curriculum (chapter 5), on the impact of problem-based learning on Chinese students undertaking higher education outside of their homeland (chapter 6), and on assessment practices (chapter 9). Of all of the chapters in this volume, “Reframing teaching relationships: from student-centered to subject-centered teaching,” would be the most suitable starting point for the reader of the Wabash Center’s online reviews. Although this chapter is situated at the center of the volume (chapter 7), it serves as the organizing chapter because it tackles an issue raised more specifically in the other chapters. Employing frame theory, the authors respond to questions of self-identity and the teaching relationship by advocating subject-centered learning.
The strength of the volume rests with the particular contribution of each individual chapter. Offering a specific perspective in a local context, each author works within cleanly defined theoretical boundaries and approaches, and presents an argument worthy of further consideration and discussion. Despite this strength, however, the overall coherence of the volume suffers from the lack of a formal, introductory chapter and a final, concluding chapter. An additional chapter at the fore could justify the order of presentation of the collection (thematically topically, or through some other means) and facilitate the act of reading by explaining criteria for selection and inclusion; a closing chapter might indicate possible applications of the issues in other contexts and introduce new approaches or questions moving forward. The lack of these critical organizing chapters at the opening and closing of the volume requires the reader to determine the contours of coherence across the chapters and to impose frameworks for interpretation.
Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
It shouldn’t be surprising that a volume intent on teaching students how to learn is just as intent on teaching the reader how to do just that, but it is still refreshing to read a book that lays out its goals, sticks to the promises it makes, and even creates its own study guide based on how much time the reader has to give to the text. Well-structured and clear, Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn is as thoughtful about itself as it is about the content it presents. McGuire has composed this book to reflect her own response to and engagement with a pressing problem in higher education: namely, that many students, even those who qualify for admission at prestigious institutions, arrive without ever having been taught to learn by anything but rote memorization. Faced with college’s demands of skills higher in Bloom’s Taxonomy, they find themselves struggling and even failing.
With this book McGuire gives teachers the tools they need to move their students past the high school model of retention until regurgitation, helping them instead to internalize a more nuanced, flexible understanding of learning. To convey this understanding, McGuire focuses on student mindset, encouraging educators to bring in everything from neurobiological models to fellow student success stories in order to help learners see that they are not stuck being “bad” at something – that change is not only possible, but already well within reach.
One potentially significant drawback, depending on one’s perspective, is how the techniques are not out-of-the-box geared to address the concerns of humanities classes. Despite the fact that most of her experience comes from teaching chemistry – and how, relatedly, most of the examples in this book are from students of the sciences – McGuire insists that the techniques here are useful outside of STEM fields. While I have no difficulty believing that claim, it is clear that most of the methods in the book are geared toward content-focused disciplines. Fortunately, McGuire’s significant focus on critical and creative thinking on top of factual learning makes these strategies flexible and worth adapting.
Most of all, McGuire is a fun writer. Personal and plainspoken, her style makes the pages fly by. (Any worries that this book might drown the reader in jargon should be alleviated by the appearance of the words “metacognition, schmetacognition” .) While perhaps not the most sophisticated text on the subject, Teaching Students How to Learn has hints and information appropriate to instructors at all levels of familiarity with metacognitive concepts, including none at all. I would recommend this book in particular to educators working with students from underserved communities, as giving students access to these techniques will help ensure their success far beyond the boundaries of a single classroom.
Teaching and Christian Imagination
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch remind their readers that they are offering “not a ‘how-to’ manual or collection of tips” but “lenses . . . opening possibilities” for effective “learning and teaching” (2). Teaching is not a transaction to dispense knowledge but a multivalent art that should not be reduced to gimmicks. As Smith and Felch conceive of it, teaching is a living process shaped by the imagination of both teacher and student – an experience directed by “visions, not just beliefs and techniques” (1). It is an organic life shaped by theological journeying, farming, and building metaphors. To bolster their argument, Smith and Felch carry their readers through a three-dimensional rubric that reimagines teaching as a biblical hermeneutic – a teaching life that undulates between “journeys and pilgrimages,” “gardens and wildernesses,” and “buildings and walls.” Reading this book as a teacher, I was drawn into the teaching world the authors invite all instructors to enter – it is a world where one hears, sees, thinks, and reimagines inexhaustible possibilities of shaping minds.
The authors draw examples from biblical characters and Christian leaders to illustrate the multifaceted and meandrous journey each of their teaching metaphors conveys. First as pilgrim, the teacher is advised to rely on God, the divine GPS, for the journey (84) – an act that includes rest but does not preclude imagination on the part of the pilgrim. Second, insights and actionable ideas are not caught in vacuum. They are caught in surprising places like gardens, deserts, and classrooms where both teacher and students, like the first humans and liberated communities (Gen 1-3; Exod 1:1-15:27), learned to rethink, develop new perceptions, and take new steps as they journeyed with God. Third, edifices and walls speak about the role and construction of space. Though both building and walls may have a positive role as a course syllabus might (168), one is reminded that spaces delineated by the twin metaphor, buildings and walls, are often vigorously contested in the Bible, as is evidenced in the Household Codes (Eph 5:11-6:11; Col 3:18-4:1; 1 Peter 2:13-3:33) – a reality that did much to reduce many women to a subservient status and silence in the church to this day.
As a Senegalese transnational biblical scholar shaped by African, Islamic, and Christian faith traditions, I find the journeying, farming, and building metaphors that Smith and Felch apply to teaching in not just Christian, but in every faith tradition. In spite of my reservations about limiting such powerful metaphors to only the Christian imagination, this book makes an invaluable contribution for educators. I agree with Smith and Felch, that Teaching and Christian Imagination is indeed an invitation to focus on what kind of person (and therefore what kind of teacher) we are gradually becoming and the place our vision of the world plays in the process . . . to wonder what teaching and learning might look like by those who know that they live in a world created by God who has filled it with beauty and story and song and who talks with us through the vale of tears and draws us toward future glory. (206)
Put differently, Christian educators, and I would add all instructors of any discipline, are invited to take seriously their function as learners and teachers whose growth is inextricably bound to the growth of those they teach. In spite of my minor objection, this book should be in the library or office of any serious teacher, educator, or leader committed to the future of humanity.
Teaching Writing While Standing on One Foot
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
This book is an invitation, and is itself a somewhat circuitous reflection on teaching and learning. Directed at writing teachers, much of Danberg’s advice applies to teaching in general, and not just because faculty teach forms of writing in class. The title borrows an image from a famous rabbinic story in which Rabbi Hillel was asked by a nonbeliever to teach the whole of Torah in the time the nonbeliever could stand on one foot. “That which is hateful to you do not do to others,” Hillel instructed, “The rest is commentary; go and learn it” (13). Danberg reminds us that standing on one foot is a posture of instability, the position of both teachers and learners. He encourages teachers to remember their own difficulties in learning. Following Rosenzweig, Danberg suggests that Hillel did not mean “the rest is only commentary… To know Torah is to know the lesson, but also to participate in an ongoing conversation… into the lesson’s value” (14). Students often seek facts, principles, or methods that they can then apply, but good teachers are able to set them on a path of lifelong inquiry. A series of autobiographical vignettes in prose and poetry, the book is punctuated by reflection prompts, or “commentary.”
The author employs several metaphors, but cooking images dominate. A good cook has learned not just to follow a recipe but knows how to see the possibility of a meal in the ingredients on hand; a good cook knows what a dish needs and when it is done. The implied parallel perhaps works best with the craft of writing but the larger point is about what Danberg calls “enfolded knowledge.” Teaching involves confronting the tension “between what we must tell students and what they can only know for themselves” (71).
He offers a compelling description of his own learning disability – his struggles, the strategies he developed, and how teachers reacted to him along the way (47). Danberg laments that schools often define gifts narrowly and he suggests the following exercise: “Spend a couple of days observing the people around you and see how many gifts you can identify… Think of yourself as a zoologist whose great pleasure it is to wait for a butterfly they’ve never seen before” (58). Later, he describes class as “an invitation to inhabit forms of attention and attunement, patterns of caution and regard… If all goes well, it is no more mysterious than the heart and mind, that tangle we are always entangled in” (73).
Danberg invokes the kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, the contraction of the divine making space for creation. (This comes in a piece entitled “Four Principles and a Fifth” – but I counted six!). A good teacher knows when to get out of the way in order to make space for learning: “You can shape the problems and anticipate the obstacles. You can decide what a student encounters and the time it takes. But in the end, you simply must get out of the way, and leave them to do the work of learning” (98-99).
Reading this book is a bit like ruminating on a Zen koan. Danberg contradicts himself and revels in paradox. The bizarre organization and genre shifts can be frustrating. This is a quirky book, but one with many moments of glittering insight into the difficult joys of learning and teaching.