Ingredients of effective teaching

7 Feb

Effective teaching is often seen as increase in student learning.  I can understand the thought behind it, because after all teaching is futile if learning is not happening. But getting these two different phenomena -teaching and learning- productively intertwined in the classroom is a challenge all educators are facing, and correlations between the two should not be drawn in haste.

The old saying about leading the horse to the water but not being able to force it to drink is very descriptive for the differences between teaching and learning, and often also quoted as such. We attempt to measure the ways of presenting information for students to learn, and seem to think the score makes one teacher more effective than another -but I am not convinced that it makes such a big difference how we take the horse to the water: it will drink when it is thirsty.  Fortunately students are born curious and ready to learn. The only thing we need to do is find a way to cooperate with that curiosity and help students preserve their interest in learning and their sense of wonder – because that is where all true learning starts: wondering if, how, when, why….

Whether students have successful learning experiences and really (deep) learn the content depends on multiple factors found in areas of both instruction and curriculum. Students’ intrinsic motivation helps them to engage, but unfortunately in some measurements of effective teaching the motivation is translated to teachers’ duty to motivate students to learn, which leads students functioning on extrinsic motivation, and never engaging in the deep learning process. The learning environment (both physical and emotional) sets the tone for the learning experience. Students’ readiness to learn  and their previous knowledge, perceived meaningfulness of content, student autonomy (support vs. control), and cooperation with the teacher all have various effects on the learning outcomes.

The concept of effectiveness is hard to define. Maybe we should pay more attention to the quality of interactions, and see how they contribute to successful learning experiences?

Learning happens in interactions between the student and the content to be learned.  In addition to interacting with the content of their learning resources, students also interact with many other things – environment, peers, teachers, staff, parents, media, social media, etc. Focusing their attention to the learning task is a choice every student makes, purposefully or being unaware about it. We teachers can help students choose wisely and spend more time interacting with their learning resources, but we certainly cannot force them into doing it. Forced interactions are of poor quality, and result in shallow learning when students perform tasks to fulfill the expectations, but don’t engage with their thoughts and/or curiosity.

Traditionally we have perceived the teacher to be one of these learning resources, or even the source of information, but I am wondering if it is not the time to recognize how a teacher’s job is much more importantly about facilitating student’s experience and engagement in interactions that result learning.

This is what pedagogy and andragogy are about: supporting students’ learning in a dialogue, individually and as a group, so that they each can be successful in their studies. Please note that I am not undermining the subject matter expertise of teachers, because being knowledgeable is essential for effective teaching. I just want to emphasize the fact that simply with enormous knowledge about the area of expertise one does not miraculously become a master teacher, because teaching (or learning facilitation) is an art and science of its own. And quite frankly, it is hard for an expert to recall what it was like to learn the first steps of a complex skill set. We pay much less attention to the details after something has become an automated skill.

Effective teaching is knowing those details, understanding how the skill builds and being able to communicate about the process.  And of course the most effective teacher is the one who makes herself unnecessary by empowering  her students to become autonomous learners. So, when creating metrics for measuring teacher effectiveness, should we also assess  students’ independence or autonomy in learning?


2 Responses to “Ingredients of effective teaching”

  1. Nicole Feledy February 7, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    Yes Nina! We need more people to understand, measuring learning using traditional testing processes, misses so much of the actual learning taking place. Worse, when tests become a tool to rank students (or teachers) they lead to artificial environments where students can perform, but not necessarily transfer, their skills.

    Effective teachers recognise this and actively collaborate with students to construct ideas, rather than copying or remembering them. As you say, effective teachers empower their students by encouraging them to think for themselves – to think because they want to, not because their teacher said they have to.

  2. yanaba11 October 22, 2013 at 1:36 am #

    Reblogged this on essay.

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