Getting rid of the importance of “explaining”

Just like last year, I am currently teaching Physics 691G – Graduate Student Professional Development Seminar. This course has multiple goals that it pursues through the lens of TA training:

  • Making sure our new graduate students are ready for those first few days of TAing
  • Provide an opportunity for new graduate students to reflect on their new identity as they move from students to research colleagues
  • Provide an opportunity to explore the ideas of modern research-based pedagogy
  • Provide an opportunity to explore some professional development skills such as presentation giving which are deeply connected to their experience as TAs

This is quite an ambitious list for a course that meets for one-hour per week and also, by design, tries to keep the outside-of-class workload down (new graduate students are busy after all!). One thing I am noticing in particular this round as I have continued to refine the course is the persistence of the idea that explaining content is a teacher’s number-one job. An idea that is clearly challenged by the modern literature’s focus on the importance of student construction of knowledge.

In this course, I have had students watch Ed Prather’s “Are you really teaching if no one is learning?” colloquium, and done several in-session activities during orientation to point out the problems with “explaining” as the dominant mode of instruction. However, from looking at my students’ comments to their readings and from seemingly off-hand comments in class, I feel that some new TAs are really holding on to this paradigm. A related picture that I am sensing is that many students feel that an active lecture paradigm is perfectly fine for introductory classes but not at all relevant for upper division material.

I suspect that part of this attitude is essentially selection bias. The students in P691G were, by definition, successful in lecture-based courses; “I was successful, why change it?” What I need to figure out how to do is to help them see that:

  • Yes, you were successful, but you are the exception.
  • You too would probably have benefited from a more active learning paradigm.

How to do this? I think I need to take a session to directly deal with these issues (for which I will need to figure out what I can move out of the classroom to either homework or via curricular change). One thing that may be useful is to take a phrase I have heard a research faculty say, “I know that these active learning methods are better, but I am just so traditional.” I am going to rephrase this to make it about research methods and ask them if they think that is okay, then I will make it about teaching. Also, I want to revisit what they hope to get out of their TA experience as far as advancing their professional development. I have an exercise where they look for jobs. I think this will be an important step and could even be homework for this class.

Things to think about…