College professors don’t always talk to each other about the intricacies of their teaching practices, and it often seems a mystery to scholars what goes on in other people’s courses.
Bonni Stachowiak has created a forum to spread those stories and techniques with her long-running podcast, Teaching in Higher Ed. Stachowiak says she is still growing as a teacher herself, as director of teaching excellence and digital pedagogy at Vanguard University of Southern California, and her sense of curiosity comes through in her weekly conversations.
EdSurge talked with Stachowiak about the biggest lessons she’s learned about teaching from those interviews, and the challenges of teaching in today’s highly partisan political environment for this week's EdSurge On Air Podcast. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).
EdSurge: How did you get into doing a podcast about teaching at colleges?
Stachowiak: My husband has a leadership podcast that's called Coaching for Leaders, and his podcast is about three years older than mine. We're kind of a geeky family, so we like gadgets and technology and that kind of thing. And he just kept saying, ‘There's really no podcasts out there (this was June of 2014) that are focused exclusively on the teaching aspect of higher ed—to have conversations about getting better at our teaching.
I've had a little bit of experience teaching myself, and I probably made all the rookie mistakes starting out. I found out it was very difficult to be on the other side of the podium—it’s harder than it looks. Do you find that’s typical for university professors?
The other day we went to an outdoor mall. They had an indoor skate park there, and my son was just beside himself because he's saying "I don't want to watch mommy, I want to do that." They make it look so easy, they have those half pipes and the whole entire swimming pool [they skate in], and they make it seem so effortless. So of course my son thinks, "of course I could hop on that skateboard go.”
I think about that often when I talk to people about teaching. If someone is brand new to teaching in higher ed, statistically speaking they're not going to have had a background in how to teach. And some people are going to make it look effortless, and they're just going to be ready to jump on their skateboard and dive in. Others will leave us thinking, "you're doing it all wrong." But then I also continue to do things wrong, you know what I mean?
So what are the avenues to get in and start to practice and start to fail and reflect on why that didn't work, and then get back on the skateboard again and try it again.
So much of our teaching models that we've had—when we think about movies and literature—have been about teaching through charisma, teaching through personality, and are not as focused on the learner.
After talking with so many people who are trying to improve their teaching, what are the biggest lessons you've learned?
One big thing that has just transformed my own teaching is how important agency is—just allowing for there to be more choice.
One of the ways in which I've attempted to do this, clumsily, is what I have called, "choose your own adventure assessment.” I used to read these Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a kid. For anyone who has not read them, you go and you get to page 7 and it says, "now you get to make a choice, do you want to go up the mountain, or down by this tree.” I would try to figure out every possible ending before I would commit to any choice—to plan it all out and that kind of thing as opposed to just enjoying the ride.
So as I learned more about how to help learners be more motivated, and allow them to recognize their own agency in their learning. Give them more choice, give them more agency, give them more opportunities. Don't try to make learning so linear.
So in terms of instead of assigning a paper, is there another way that a student can demonstrate their learning of whatever objective that you have, that isn't a traditional research paper. Could a student, in my business ethics class, for example, design some sort of a board game or a computer game that demonstrated the same knowledge, but did it in a way that is going to last beyond the class, that they're really going to get excited about and be challenged by?
I noticed that many of your podcast episodes focus on equity. What are some of the key ways you've learned to make sure courses reach everyone?
The biggest one for me involves context. I’m sometimes incredibly angry at my old self, where I would just assume, “oh you're telling me you can't pay for your textbooks? Really? Well I could pay for my textbooks when I was in college, what’s the problem? I've seen you at a Starbucks before, are you using your money wisely.” All this because I had my own context going through higher education—in my case without being in poverty, not really knowing that it's even possible. It's embarrassing to admit, but I need to because so many more of us need to admit this, that I have no clue what it would be like to go through college in poverty.
To me that's a humbling experience—to recognize that my sense of context is going to be very different from other context that the learners I get the privilege of walking alongside. That's just a continuous battle. So much of it to me is helping us to recognize how often we take our own context and assume people are living the same thing that we did.
How has college teaching changed since the election of Trump? Or what needs to change in the political environment we’re in, which seems very different than that just a few years ago?
I'm not sure I'm done figuring this out yet. I would have told you before [Trump] was elected that my politics needed to stay out of the classroom. My politics were always with me in the classroom, but really my emphasis would have been on asking questions and getting the critical thought to emerge within the students by asking better questions.
Today I feel like that's not enough for us as educators because it can seem to normalize [Trump]. So I want to still ask really hard questions, but I also want to be finding [alternative] ways to say, "this is not normal, this is not normal, this is not normal.”
I’m trying to take the work of people who are focused on digital literacy and incorporate that into my classes in some way. Because I think one of the things that's just frightening for me is that, all of a sudden, it's a possibility for people in our society, not just students, to just shut down and say "it’s all false, I'm checking out, this is way too hard to navigate, and I can't figure out what's true and what's not so I'm going to go do something else.”
There is an interesting truisms about teaching that people should move from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. But it seems even harder these days to know how to be a guide for students through all the digital material out there.
Yeah, possibly some of us might be able to be a guide around digital literacy. But I'm not really bought into ‘guide on the side’ for general learning philosophy or teaching philosophy because so much of how we need to be preparing ourselves, and our learners, is for things we couldn't guide—because we don't know where we're going.
Guide on the side assumes, "I know where we're going" and a lot of times in my teaching now I'm experimenting with things and I don't know where we're going.”
I recently documented my experience writing my first open textbook and that was just four months ago and there was a lot I encountered I had no idea how to handle, what to do, it was coming all the time. So I'm not a guide. We're doing this together; I put on the backpack with them. I have some resources but there were certainly going to be things I couldn't guide them through and we had to navigate through together.