Monday, October 22, 2012

Teaching What You Don't Know

Therese Huston
Welcome to readers who are visiting this page after reading my column in The Chronicle of Higher Education about Therese Huston's book Teaching What You Don't Know.  My original intention was to include in the column some comments from Therese in response to questions I posed to her about the subject matter of the book, but I ended up writing the column primarily about the book itself.  As a result, I thought I would share her responses to two of the interview questions I asked to her, and which allowed her to offer additional explanation and advice to her readers.

JL: Where did your original inspiration for the book come from?

TH: Part of the inspiration for the book was lived experience. I have taught many courses where I was just a few weeks (and in some cases days) ahead of my students. As a graduate student and then as a new faculty member, I used to wonder, “Why doesn’t anyone talk about how they learn all of this material, knowing they have to teach it in 12-24 hours?” But I was hoping to get my PhD and then tenure and that seemed like a risky question. When I looked at books on college teaching for advice, it bothered me that the only thing most books said about expertise could be summed up in two sentences: “In order to teach, you need to have mastered the subject matter. And in order to teach well, that’s not nearly enough.” So I’d been wrestling with this issue personally and professionally for years.

I’d also noted in my role as Director [of Seatle's University's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning] how I’d often consult one-on-one with faculty on courses outside of their expertise. A faculty member might tell me he was teaching three courses and didn’t need much help with the first two, but confidentially, he needed a lot of help with the course where he was still grappling with the material. These faculty walked into my office seeking time management advice, but the conversation often moved to their anxieties around this seemingly impossible task of teaching something they didn't know.

But the “ah-hah” moment, the insight where the book title came to me, was in a yoga studio. I was taking a yoga class, just another person on a mat trying to shake off the stresses of the week, when the instructor said something that caught my attention. She said “If I’m going to be a good teacher, I need to focus on what I don’t know. It’s not about remembering all that I do know. That’s fine when I’m doing poses and trying to impress myself at home, but it’s thinking about what I don’t know that helps me notice what you, my students, need right now.”

I’m not entirely sure what she meant, but as I drove home from the yoga class, I knew I had my book title.

JL: Let's say you are a content expert--what are some concrete steps you could take in order to help yourself understand the problems that a novice learner in your field might have?

TH: One problem for experts is that it can be hard to appreciate what novice learners do and don’t know about a topic. One good way to find out is to do Google search on the phrase “Top misconceptions” or “Common myths,” then enter the name of the topic you’re addressing that week. For instance, one of my areas of expertise in psychology is attention (how we pay attention, how we become distracted, etc.), and when I do a quick search for “common myths about attention,” the first few web pages that appear have almost nothing to do with how I’d normally introduce the topic in class. I want to talk about attention allocation (boring and abstract), and these websites are about ADHD (concrete and potentially familiar). But now that I know what students might be thinking about attention when they walk into class, I can do a better job connecting to their notion of attention. I can reframe some of the unfamiliar and complex topics that I want to discuss in the context of what they’re already thinking. Best of all, I get a chance to challenge some misconceptions they might have

My second suggestion would be do a web search on the phrase “Best blogs” followed by the general field of study. So in this case, I would look for “Best blogs psychology” or “Best blogs cognitive science.” I find that I need to enter broad search terms, not narrow ones, to get the best results. Bloggers have often done some of the hard work for you because they are looking for ways to take research findings and make them applicable to non-specialists and everyday situations. That's how they hold onto readers. You’ll often find images and links to videos that you might want to use in class, and you might even find a blog that you want to subscribe to professionally.

And lastly, if you’ve taught an undergraduate course several times and you’re looking for a way to refresh it, update at least one example for each week of the course. As experts, we tend to be curators of the best examples of a concept, rather than recent or familiar ones. The best examples, however, are often obscure. In a political science course, for instance, you might want to talk about elections and from an expert’s perspective, the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 was evidently fascinating, but you’d probably get better reasoning and arguments from students if you drew something from this week’s news.

Readers can learn more about Therese Huston and her work at her website:

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