Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Philosophy of Teaching Philosophies

I read a lot of teaching philosophies as part of my consultation work at the Schreyer Institute. What makes a teaching philosophy good, in my opinion?

In no particular order, three tips:

1) Its formatting allows the reader to quickly skim it and still come away with a sense of the writer’s teaching persona. Hiring committees tend to be busy people, and we can’t count on them to read the whole document.

2) The philosophy includes some examples that help me see the teacher — and the students — at work in the classroom or outside it. As James M. Lang points out in a great Chronicle article about teaching philosophies, it’s easy enough to write the current buzzwords, but it’s more difficult to give evidence of something substantial. (Or as Susan Ambrose from CMU’s teaching center said in a workshop the other day, the term “active learning” should be banned. “Meaningful learning” is much more to the point, she said.)

3)  The philosophy shows the students learning, and not just the teacher teaching. Both are important, but at the Schreyer Institute we caution people against putting all the emphasis on what the teacher is doing — because success hinges on what the students are producing. As Ambrose stressed in her talk, the student is the one responsible for learning.

I’d welcome your suggestions about what makes a good teaching philosophy.

Evaluating Technology for Teaching and Learning

A few of us at the Institute continue to discuss ways we can help faculty evaluate new technologies that have the potential to impact teaching and learning.  Typically, the focus is completely on the student, and how he or she will benefit from a specific technology.  While I feel this is appropriate, we also need to consider the faculty side of the equation, and what it means for a faculty member to learn, evaluate, integrate and assess a technology’s use in a course setting.

A recent article in Onward State dealt with the use of Yammer, specifically focused on leveraging Yammer to support coursework.  As a faculty member, how do I evaluate the potential of Yammer for my course?  One method is to ask around.  The Schreyer Institute, ETS, and other units on campus typically have some experience experimenting with these services.  I could also look for examples or case studies online.  But the main thing I want to do is create an account myself and experiment with the service.

Here’s where things get tricky, especially when experimenting with social media.  Specifically, the tricky part is the ‘social’ aspect of these services.  In order to really see the value, you need to have a group of people commit to trying Yammer.  Until you reach a critical mass to test with, it’s very difficult to uncover all the potential benefits of a social service.  For instance, we’re experimenting with a social bookmarking service called Diigo.  Until we had 5-6 people contributing, it’s very difficult to judge what the service can really offer.

If you want to experiment with technologies for teaching and learning, you might want to try and start an informal community within your College or Department willing to experiment with you.  Pick a technology, and have the group commit 3-4 weeks to using it, then reconvene and discuss the possible application of the technology to coursework.  Feel free to contact the institute if you would like to discuss the idea further, or want to connect with like-minded individuals to test various technologies for teaching and learning.   

Peer Learning

I was sitting in the library and working on my paper the other day. I was distracted by the everlasting sounds of “chatting”. A group of four students were sitting at another table. I looked at them and realized that they were not just chatting, but discussing. I noticed that one of students seemed to be the “little teacher” who helped the other three students get clarification on some concepts and all of them worked together to solve problems. I saw their confused and struggled faces during my 10-minute observation, but I also saw their satisfied and happy faces when they were on their way out of the library. I do not know what course they were preparing for, but I believe that working with other peers and working as a team help them learn from each other during their peer learning time. What do you think about peer learning?

Also, I found an article “Teaching Tough Course Led Chemistry Professor to Push Peer-Learning Approach” written by Katherine Mangan addressing peer-led team learning approach which was introduced by Dr. Kampmeier, a Professor Emeritus of Chemistry in University of Rochester and a national leader of peer-led team learning approach.

The article is here:

Look for the Instruments, Listen to the Symphony

It’s the first day of class. You stand in front of the classroom, staring out at the wall of faces staring out at you.  This is your learning community for the semester–the students entrusted to you for growth, meaning-making, change for betterment and life-long impact.

You have great responsibility here.

But today, that wall of faces is still just a wall.  You have no way of knowing the individual needs, individual lives, individual gifts of the individual faces that compose that wall.  All you see is their sameness:  Students.  In your class.

Now, you could choose to see the wall all semester long.  Or, you could look out at your symphony.

Please forgive me, I’m a musician.  But–I am also a teacher, and here is what I’ve been thinking about:

As a teacher, do I stand in front of my classroom and envision each student holding their individual instrument?  Do I see the bassoon, the flute, the violin, the timpani?  Do I listen for the unique contribution of each instrument within the symphony before me, and do I strive to understand how the parts contribute to the whole? Do I embrace the reality that there would not be a symphony without those instruments?  And do I consider that perhaps I am just another instrument within their ranks?

I’ve been thinking about this due to an article that recently ran in The Chronicle, entitled Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age, by Cathy Davidson.  Although, to be more truthful it wasn’t the article that made me think about it.  It was one paragraph, defined by one phrase: “collaboration by difference”.

You can read the article for yourself if you want to know the context [and I suggest that you really do want to know the context, as it’s very cool, and very applicable to you as a forward thinking sort of educator], but -since it has absolutely nothing to do with symphonies–allow me to explain what it was that I took away and spun into my own context:

Davidson writes that “collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction.”  This is where she got me: difference is not a deficit–it’s a point of distinction.  It’s what makes a potentially divergent contribution important, necessary even.  And collaboration by difference means that divergence can be brought together in a meaningful and purposeful way.

Collaboration–after all–is about bringing together.  Google the word ‘collaboration’ and you’ll find phrases like ‘working together’, ‘joint endeavor’ and ‘shared goals’.  There’s consensus implied in a collaboration–in the sense that these people have worked together and have come to a consensus–but more too:

A collaboration brings us beyond consensus into something new.  Using our differences to work together results in a co-construction of new territory.  It is–in its very essence–change.  And to change is to learn.

Since I desire learning to occur within my classroom, I need to allow for collaboration by difference in the underlying rules of my classroom community.  I need to see the distinctive and potentially divergent instruments sitting in front of me while I listen for the symphony.

I need to look beyond the wall.

Dr. Spanier on Leadership

The Schreyer Conference on Student Leadership Development is taking place today, and Dr. Spanier provided the opening address.  Being the President of Penn State for over a decade, as well as his past experiences, gives Dr. Spanier an incredible amount of experience in leadership to share with the audience.
Dr. Spanier mentioned that he receives 20-30 requests to ‘learn how to be a great leader’ from students, faculty, professors and industry personnel each year.  People seem to be looking for a formula for leadership, Dr. Spanier remarked.  
“There is no formula for how to be a good leader. “
Leaders don’t ‘take the elevator’ to their role, they have to be willing to put in the hard work, to take the stairs.
Leaders have to be willing to get involved in everything, even if it’s beyond the scope of a job description.  Dr. Spanier recounted that he’s never asked anyone that reports to him to do something he’s not willing to do, or hasn’t done in the past.
Being a good leader involves good character and skillsets, and critical thinking is an underlying key to leadership.  A good leader must be able to take any issue and examine it from every angle.  Adding a bit of poignant humor, Dr. Spanier briefly mentioned how the media and politicians today want to publicize ‘leaders’ that are radically on opposite ends of the spectrum on many important issue our society faces.  This is unfortunate, because we need good leaders to be able to see these issues from a variety of angles if we ever want to arrive at the best solutions.  Dr. Spanier pointed out that this ‘style’ or type of leadership that we find in politics would never work in the corporate world, or in academe.  
Dr. Spanier closed with a story about the Prime Minister of Bhutan, a small country in South East Asia.  The Prime Minister was a graduate student at Penn State, and during his studies he was asked by his department to be a representative at the Graduate Student council and other graduate student events.  Eventually, he was asked if he would be the president of the Graduate Council.  Now, in public discussions, the Prime Minister readily admits that he would not be in the position of leadership he is in today if it were not for the leadership experiences found at Penn State.
“Very often, small gestures have grand consequences”, Dr. Spanier remarked, and asked all in attendance to encourage our students to get more involved with leadership opportunities both with the University, as well as with local communities.

Imagine a University without Lectures

Research has shown that students learn better when they are actively engaged in the material than they do when they are taught by lecture (see, for example, Crouch & Mazur, 2001: But trying to incorporate active learning strategies can be challenging because neither faculty nor students have had much experience with teaching and learning in new ways. Furthermore, making sweeping changes in the manner that teaching and learning happens at established universities is extremely difficult.


So, when the University of Minnesota decided to build a new campus in Rochester, Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle took the opportunity to build a university that focused on learning, rather than memorizing (see ). According to Lehmkuhle, the goal of education is not the pursuit of knowledge in distinct disciplines; rather, it is the acquisition of skills needed to succeed in a world where knowledge is constantly changing. Research indicates that the key to learning is motivation. The University of Minnesota Rochester is built around the idea that students are motivated to learn when they can make connections.


So…at UMR, there are no lectures. There is no “front of the room” where one authority disseminates knowledge, according to the vice chancellor, Claudia Neuhauser. There are no departments. Faculty of all disciplines work together in the Center for Learning Innovation. Courses in biology, ethics and writing (for example) are connected. Tenure and promotion require faculty to do research on student learning. Can you imagine that?


At UMR, there is no football team. But there *is* a competitive ballroom dancing team.

If I could start my education over again, I’d apply to UMR!

Cutting the cord

Recently a colleague who is a new faculty member at another institution told me that she has been communicating with her former graduate adviser too much. She contacts her advisor frequently to ask for input on articles and grant proposals she is working on. “I just realized that I’m relying on him too much,” she said. “It’s time to cut the cord”. She was referring to the umbilical cord that joins a newborn to its mother. Of course the umbilical cord is essential to the growth and development of a baby before birth, but afterward it is no longer needed.

At Penn State we are at the beginning of a new academic year, a time when hundreds of new faculty members are beginning another stage of their careers. Where do they get the information they need to successfully navigate this transition? I chatted recently with a senior faculty member who has many years of experience in working with new faculty as a department head, a dean, and a member of promotion and tenure committees. He told me he has seen several instances where new faculty members, unsure of their departmental/college expectations for tenure, consult a source who cannot necessarily give them useful information: their graduate advisor. Why is the information not useful? Each institution has its own particular expectations regarding promotion and tenure, so a faculty member who has gone through the process at another institution may have had a very different experience.

I certainly do not mean to suggest through these anecdotes that new faculty should sever all ties to their graduate advisors. But what we do know from scholars who have studied the mentoring process (not quite like advising but close enough for my purposes here) is that the relationship between mentor and mentee is just that–a relationship. And like any kind of relationship, it has phases. New faculty may find themselves negotiating not just a physical but a psychological separation from their graduate advisors. This separation phase marks the end of the formal mentoring relationship, where both parties review what has been accomplished and how successful the relationship has been.

This transition is not always an easy one for a new faculty member, who may feel less than confident in his or her readiness to take on a new role. And mentors who have really engaged in and enjoyed the mentoring process may be reluctant to separate from the mentee. A successful separation is not the end of the relationship. Once they work through the separation process, mentor and mentee can redefine their relationship as one of friends or colleagues.
During the separation and redefinition phases, a new faculty member still needs sources of useful information and support germane to his/her new role–in other words, another mentor.

As an instructional developer who works with new faculty concerning their new teaching roles, I realize that new faculty need support as they take on not just teaching, but research and service.

We are a large university with many mentoring resources, some of them informal or not well-known. Do you have experiences or resources on mentoring new faculty you would like others to know about? Or perhaps you are a new faculty member looking for resources? Let me know about it, either via the blog or email:

Creating Productive Learning Environments (AKA…Classroom Management)

At every level of education, folks want to know about classroom management. Even in non-academic environments–say, for example, business meetings–it can be a struggle to keep people from text messaging, engaging in sidebar conversations, etc. In classrooms, in particular, the issue for instructors is often what to do once disruptive behaviors occur. What do I do about the students talking in my class? The students reading newspapers in my class? The student who is sleeping? A staple in this regard is Felder and Brent’s All In A Day’s Work. They’ve got a great approach to thinking about management issues once they arise. (And we all know that they do!)

But what about strategies for preventing management problems? Is there a way to be proactive? Yes! The trick is to stay focused on creating a productive learning environment. The staple here? Jacob Kounin’s work. Okay. Okay. The research is old–1970. But it’s seen corroboration in the decades since. Here’s the premise: Be organized. Plan for smooth transitions between learning activities. Have yourself and your class materials organized. Be prepared for the unexpected. Don’t allow yourself to get off on tangents that aren’t central to what you’re teaching. Ask questions in ways that everyone has to think about the answer even though only one or two may respond.

My personal favorite is ‘withitness.’ It’s Kounin’s term for having eyes in the back of your head. It’s about being aware of everything that’s going on in the classroom. Do you notice the person who’s texting? (You might simply mosey a little closer to that person. They’ll probably quit.) Do you notice the person who doesn’t look well? The person with a drink teetering on the edge of the desk? What about the student who looks puzzled by your last comment? What about the two arguing–but about their understanding of a concept you’re teaching? If you’re aware of these things, you can make decisions about them. Attend to them. Or not. But at least you’re in a place where you can be proactive. That’s classroom management.

I read once that if job stress was measured by number and frequency of decisions made, then teaching would be second only to air traffic control. More recently I heard someone say that teaching IS decision-making. Personally, I would rather make decisions that create productive learning environments and prevent classroom management issues than make decisions about how to fix them once they’ve occurred.