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Talking about teaching: sharing pedagogical knowledge

Posted by Melissa on April 28, 2012

Last week, Maryellen Weimer had a post about the tendency of faculty to share their pedagogical developments primarily through word of mouth. She discusses what she sees as the problems with this approach: dissemination is spotty, it doesn’t “establish the value or permanence of pedagogical knowledge”, and  it doesn’t provide any peer review of the knowledge that is being disseminated (as publication in a journal would). It’s an interesting critique, and she has some valid points. While the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) has grown immensely in the past decade or two, and I appreciate the contributions that many are making in that field, as someone whose primarily scholarship is not in that area, I find I don’t have time to keep up on the SoTL literature. Heck, I can barely keep up on the condensed matter literature that is relevant to my research. Granted, I do peruse the physics education research articles that appear in American Journal of Physics, but unless I hear about a particular SoTL article via word of mouth (at an AAPT conference or through social media), I’m unlikely to read anything beyond AJP or The Physics Teacher.

I rely primarily on word of mouth to expand my teaching horizons, to get ideas for addressing pedagogical challenges, or to learn about the approaches others successfully use in their classrooms. Where do I turn to learn from and share ideas with colleagues? On campus, I find that many valuable conversations begin at the lunch time sessions that the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching (LTC) organizes almost weekly. The aspect of LTC lunches I enjoy most is the opportunity to listen, learn, and share pedagogies across disciplinary boundaries. Classroom approaches that are taken for granted in one discipline can provide tantalizing new ways to engage students in another. Beyond campus, I find that national AAPT meetings and the local MAAPT meeting (just attended one today!) provide valuable venues for learning about how other physicists think about teaching. I particularly like that AAPT brings together physicists who teach in high schools, community colleges, undergraduate institutions, and research universities.  There is a lot to learn by having conversations across different institutions and different types of institutions. Finally, I find on-line social media, and blogs in particular, to be a valuable way to learn, share, and start conversations. Although the comment section of this blog is rarely active, blog posts here have sparked a number of interesting off-line conversations about teaching and learning.

For me, it’s the concept of conversation that makes word of mouth pedagogy so valuable.  No two teachers, no two classes, no two institutions are the same. Having conversations with other teachers allows more give and take, and an opportunity for tailoring the conversation and the pedagogy to one’s particular needs.  Reading a journal article about teaching, although it may catch my interest, is much less likely to cause me to change what I do in the classroom than talking with another teacher. That teacher can describe how he or she changed his or her approach, acknowledging benefits and drawbacks, while at the same time defusing my concerns or addressing my uncertainties. A journal article can’t do that.

For those of you who are teachers, what do you think about the role of the oral tradition in sharing pedagogy? Are we doing a disservice to ourselves and our teaching by not reading and sharing more through the peer-reviewed SoTL literature?

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2 Responses to “Talking about teaching: sharing pedagogical knowledge”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist said

    I really enjoy the oral tradition, and have really leveraged blogs, twitter, MAAPT, and the Global Physics Department (see below) to dig down deep into pedagogical issues that are of interest to me. One of the problems I have with PER research journal articles is the heavy emphasis on statistics instead of stories. I like to see that a particular approach is shown to be successful, and you need the statistics for that, but I miss hearing more about the unpublished stories involved in that particular form of teaching. I think Dedra Demaree is doing some cool things with the PER Users Guide web page to bridge some of those gaps, though.

    The Global Physics Department is a group of physics educators that meets every week online (Wednesday nights at 8:30CT) using web conferencing software. We talk about issues we have with all kinds of pedagogical issues. We’ve had textbook authors talk to us about their approaches, and we coach each other by watching videos of ourselves teaching. We’ve tackled issues with modeling instruction, group dynamics, flipping the classroom, mindset activities, how to teach error propagation, whether momentum is king (it is), and all kinds of other issues. The fact that we have people from a wide spectrum of teaching environments really makes it fun and exciting to talk about these issues.

  2. Bitsy said

    I taught, as a lecturer, my first course this term, so I suppose that makes me a teacher. I found your blog post about getting student feedback quite useful, and passed your post about screencasting to grad students I know who are interested in teaching. I have never read a peer-reviewed pedagogy article.

    I can’t say how the oral tradition works for experienced teachers, but it leave new teachers at the mercy of whatever they happen to have around them. I have been lucky, my advisor has been really helpful, as a student I saw many examples of excellent teaching, I have online relationships with people who are interested in talking about teaching. I know other people who have not been so lucky, and I wonder if a more formal approach could help them.

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