James raised a question at the end of a stream of comments that I wasn’t able to immediately answer.
What allowed you to be willing enough to risk what was comfortable to you and attempt your ‘experiments’ documented in earlier postings of Pedablogy?
After I thought about the question, I realized it has a bearing on a theme I’ve written about before: why do many faculty seem so reluctant to think outside the box about their teaching.
The short answer to the question is: I attended the 2005 Educause Learning Initiative Conference (in 2005 it was still the NLII). Let me try to explain.
Sometime after I received tenure, I realized I didn’t have to play the game of academia–doing research in narrow, technical areas which few people would read much less care about. Rather, I could do what interested me and what I cared about. At the time, I recognized that this decision might cost me in terms of promotion and salary, but I was willing to accept that.
It may be anathema to say so, but for most of my professional life I’ve seen myself not as an economist who happens to do some teaching, but rather as a teacher who happens to have been trained in economics. (I guess it’s more complex than that. I’ve also done quite a bit of economic consulting for which my teaching experience mattered not at all.
I’ve always enjoyed teaching–that’s why I got into academia–and I’ve always tried to work at improving my teaching. My discipline has a subfield in economic pedagogy, using the tools of economics to analyze teaching effectiveness, so it was quite straightforward for me to begin working in this area. I found I had something to say here, unlike my earlier research where I felt as if I was acting.
One additional feature probably helped: in my field and at my institution the work I did and the resulting conference presentations and publications counted as scholarship. Indeed, the more work I’ve done in pedagogy, the more respect I’ve gotten in my own discipline, which has come as somewhat of a surprise.
In short, I’ve found experimenting with my teaching rewarding, both intrinsically and extrinsically.
I’ve always thought of teaching as a puzzle, much like an interesting research problem. My graduate training clearly helped here. The central question for me has been: How can I design a course environment: rules, incentives, assignments, requirements, so that students do what is necessary for them to learn. The course environment has always struck me as more important than what I do lecturing or leading discussion. It’s not that what I do in the class room as instructor isn’t important, but rather that its only one part of the course experience. And ultimately, it’s what the students do, or I should say, how students react to the course environment that matters more. So, how can I make students want to do what will lead to their learning?
The 2005 ELI conference suggested some tantalizing possibilities. Beginning with John Bransford’s opening address, the conference was a transformative experience for me, enabling me to think far outside the box of my previous teaching innovations. I found myself energized with ideas, which I thought through over the succeeding months, following up research I was introduced to at the conference.
The result was the experiment I’ve conducted this academic year and which I’ve blogged about.