Stop Calling College Teachers ‘Professors.’ Try ‘Cognitive Coaches,’...

Digital Learning

Stop Calling College Teachers ‘Professors.’ Try ‘Cognitive Coaches,’ Says Goucher President

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jun 28, 2017

Stop Calling College Teachers ‘Professors.’ Try ‘Cognitive Coaches,’ Says Goucher President

One problem with college teaching is that professors see themselves as, well, professing— declaring what they know and believe. That’s not how good teaching works, argues Jose Bowen, president of Goucher College.

The best teachers have more in common with fitness instructors, he argues. They motivate and guide their students to accomplish their goals.

Years ago Bowen coined the term “teaching naked,” meaning teaching without technology like PowerPoint. His latest book, “Teaching Naked Techniques: A Practical Guide to Designing Better Classes,” expands on his arguments and offers practical advice for instructors who want to rethink how they design their classes.

EdSurge recently sat down with Bowen at his office at the liberal arts college just outside of Baltimore, where he argued that improving college teaching is key to helping improve the political climate facing the country. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on iTunes (or your favorite podcast app).

EdSurge: Your book offers a broad critique of college instructors. It mentions that professors were not normal students in their own college experience, and so they often have trouble putting themselves in the positions of the students sitting it their classrooms. The professors were outliers—the kind of students who wanted to sit in the front and wanted to do everything for the class. But most students probably don’t feel like that. Could you talk a little bit more about this disconnect?

Bowen: As a faculty member myself, I am a member of the oddball club. I liked school so much, I’m still here. And that is unusual. Most students want to graduate, leave, and never come back. This is not their favorite place.

Since we’ve discovered that teaching is mostly about motivation, that matters because for faculty, motivation was usually not the primary problem. We were motivated, we did the extra reading, we understood, we were excited about Foucault, saying “Oh my god, I’ve always wanted to read this. This is fantastic.” We came to class prepared, we liked to participate. We were model students. Most of us.

But now we’ve had this whole paradigm shift from teaching to learning, from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side, which was the beginning of a revolution that really has to do with the brain—with cognition and behavioral science. We now understand much more about how the brain works and how learning works. As Terry Doyle says, “The one who does the work, does the learning.” So, as a teacher, I can’t do the work for you. You have to do the work. And the analogy they use for this is fitness. The fitness coach can’t exercise for you. Ultimately, only you can do that.

They’re the same model. A fitness coach is a fitness coach because he or she likes to exercise, and that’s why they’re all buff, right? They love the gym. You’re coming in, you probably don’t love the gym but you know you have to be there. What worked for them isn’t going to work for you.

But the analogy goes further. Just having more equipment and more knowledge isn’t necessarily more useful. This fitness coach knows about equipment, knows about your body but mostly they get paid because they’re motivators. What they’re paid to do is to know about you. What is it that motivates you? What do you really want to accomplish here? ‘Oh, you really want to fit into that prom dress?’ You will have to get on the bike and pedal faster. You will have to do more work if you really want to. The motivation is understanding you and what matters to you.

Great teaching is about the ability to break things down into steps. You’re an expert, you’ve put all the pieces together, but most people need practice at step one then step two, then a little bit of step three.

Of course the irony is that all the people who are really good at this are the video game designers. They are really good at breaking things down into problems. That place that they call the “pleasantly frustrating.” If something is too hard, you quit. If something is too easy, you also quit. Finding the right balance is the key, and the problem is that the key is different for every person. In a classroom, the best you can do is teach to the middle. A video game can be pleasantly frustrating for everybody simultaneously. That’s a very hard thing for us to do in a classroom of even five students because they’re five very different human beings.

The new book is about thinking about teaching as a design problem. The people we’re designing for are the people who are not like us.

Of course, with the book’s title, “Teaching Naked,” you’re talking about getting technology out of the classroom. But what’s wrong with having tech in the classroom?

First, people don’t multi-task. We’ve now been able to put this lie to bed that people can actually shop on Facebook and listen to your lecture and take good notes all simultaneously. The more distractions there are in class, the harder it is for people to concentrate, for people to learn.

But the other argument is that classroom teaching is always going to be more expensive. It’s just going to cost more to bring people together and to drive to campus, to park, to do all of that. So if all I’m going to do is replicate something that I could do equally well online, no one is going to pay the premium that we charge for online classes. As with any operation or organization, I want to maximize the value of the thing that costs the most. Face-to-face classroom time costs the most. It’s absolutely the most expensive thing that we do. During that time, I should prioritize the activities that have the most value but also those activities that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

It’s the same thing when you go to a meeting and some guy reads his PowerPoint. Especially if you’ve gone across the country to a convention where they’ve assembled all these people you want to talk to—and they line you up in a room and they read their PowerPoint. You think, well wait, why didn’t you send me the PowerPoint in advance? Let me read the PowerPoint, and then say “So has everybody read the PowerPoint? Now let’s have a discussion.”

Or when he reads his PowerPoint, you multitask and shop online or check email.

Of course. I have a whole section of the book saying don’t wag your finger at students, but also don’t summarize the reading for them because if you summarize the reading for the students who didn’t do it, you’re just enabling them. They say, “Hey, I’m a smart student, why would I do the reading? I’m just going to put up my hand and say I didn’t do the reading and the teacher will summarize it for me.” That’s a whole lot easier, right?

There’s a correlated economic argument which is that, college is too expensive. We now have online providers who are cheaper, in fact, even free. These MOOCs are free. Well people say, “But the MOOCs aren’t very successful, most people drop out.” Yes, but they’re also open admission, they’re open enrollment. And who does best at MOOCs? College graduates.

One of my cuckoo ideas is that maybe we should require all seniors to pass a MOOC before they graduate. The first MOOC, we would help you with it but we’re gearing you up to do is, when you graduate from my college you should be able to take MOOCs on your own because five years from now, 10 years from now, you are going to have to learn things on your own. It will be more efficient and cheaper for you to go to this online then to come back and get another degree.

That’s really the point of education. I call this the learning economy. I think the information age is over. It’s not who knows the most. We’ve become confused. We think our smartphone is smart and it’s not.

Our ’smart classroom’ isn’t smart either, is that what you’re saying?

It’s not smart either. Smart is the ability to change your mind. To me, the most valuable thing in education is the ability to change your mind. Yes, there’s content, but going back to the principle that “The one who does the work does the learning,” I can’t actually force it into you. You’re going to have to learn how to learn content on your own, which you can do at home. What you can do in my classroom is learn how to change your mind.

Without having to get political, the internet has opened up lots, and lots, and lots of alternative facts. Lots and lots of other ways to look at the world—and frankly, lots of garbage. The need to be discerning, to be analytical, to be able to think for yourself, to be able to say, “That’s not really causal; that’s a correlation. That’s not really a fact.” That’s gone up in value. At the very time that professing has gone down in value. I would argue that, like the fitness coach, we should stop calling people professors who are our teachers and start calling them cognitive coaches.

Our goal as an undergraduate college should be to turn students into voracious, self-regulated learners who can learn content on their own. If you graduate from college and can’t learn new content on your own, we have failed. If you need me, that’s bad.

Let me ask you this about professors, though. The picture that you paint about professors seems very good for the students, but not necessarily what a lot of professors signed up for when they thought of themselves professing or being in the academic robes. And you have to go to school a long time to earn a PhD. Do professors want to be in this trainer role?

It’s a great question, and I would say you’d ask the coal miners and the folks in Detroit on the assembly line the same question. It’s true they didn’t go to school as long, but they were sold a job—that you can have a career doing this—and the world changed. Technology and the world changed. So now the question is, do I want to stay here and say, “Just bring coal mining back, and it will be okay?” Or do you say, “You know, I’m sorry but that industry has changed, it doesn’t exist the way it used to, so now we need to be honest about what we need to do to prepare you for the future.”

That is a challenge and not everybody signed up for it. Here, and most places, have invested in a center for teaching and learning, and there’s a lot more faculty training going on. In fact, there’s a lot of discussion about how should we rethink the training during the PhD. Now, most PhD programs are including pedagogy. That was certainly not the case when I was going to school. It’s changed.

What do you think about Lecture Capture. Do you not do that at Goucher? It seems to send a message to students that you can go to class, or you can just watch it later.

We don’t do it here. Partly because we have mostly small classes, and we only have the one lecture hall, which we rarely use because we’re a small liberal arts college. But also, Lecture Capture is like watching a video of Spiderman the musical. Nobody wants that. I either want to watch Spiderman the movie with all the special effects and all the cool stuff it can do, or I want to go to the theater, on Broadway, and watch Spiderman and say, “Okay I can see the wires, but I’m at live theater and I don’t care.” A video of Spiderman the musical is not of any interest to me, unless I want to study the costumes or something.

But Lecture Capture is big business. It’s pretty mainstream these days.

Yeah, but part of that is that it gives the illusion of doing something new and innovative and high tech without really doing it. The truth is, video capture does give an incremental improvement on learning in a lecture class. If I have a lecture class, and I videotape all the lectures, students can now skip class and they can also go back and watch the video and listen to the same parts over and over again. The one thing I can’t do in a live class, I can’t press the rewind button and say, “Say that again.” So there is some incremental increase to learning that comes from making a video of your lectures.

To me, the video capture is a halfway measure that really is the worst of both worlds but I’ll concede that it does provide some small incremental increase over just lecturing and looking at your shoes.

You say that college should be to help students change their mind. Do you see a failure of college teaching as contributing to the political climate we’re in these days?

I do think that empathy for people who disagree with you is essential. It’s also about changing the mind of somebody else. If I want to change somebody else’s mind, I don’t start by telling them, “You’re wrong.” I start by telling them, “Explain to me why you believe what you believe.” If I really listen, if I really understand your motivation, it’s just like teaching. If teaching is about changing minds, all of these techniques will work to heal our country. It’s the same thing. Good teaching starts with what matters to your students. It ends with what matters to me.

I would actually argue that the graduation system is perverse. The moment we measure butt time, the amount of time you sat on your tookus, and then if you do it in 120 hours, you get a degree. We keep time constant and learning variable.

What would happen if we reverse that so learning is going to be constant, and time is variable? It may take you longer than it takes me, but you can graduate when you’re able to change your mind—when you’re able to hold two ideas in your mind at once without having to pick one. Those are the mental skills you need to have to be a citizen, and you can stay here for as long as you like until you can do that. We’re not letting you go until you can do that. That might be a radically different society and country that we live in.

At some point in your career, you were a professional jazz musician. How did you get to be a college president?

Gee, I don’t know. As a musician, I play the piano, so I did spend a large part of my career listening to other people and making them sound better. The trick about being the pianist in the band is that there’s nothing you can do to make the drummer go faster. The drummer is going to do what he wants to do. If the drummer is too loud, the drummer’s too loud. You can get a new drummer, but I don’t have any authority to say, “You must play softer, you must play faster,” so you can goose it a little bit. You can try to do things from your seat in the band to make it try to sound a little better.

My job here is the power of persuasion. You know, that joke about being a college president is a bit like being in charge of a graveyard. “You’re over a lot of people but nobody’s listening.” You don’t have as much authority as people think. To me, my job is to listen to everybody else and help them sound better. The way I do that is by sometimes putting a chord here or there and seeing what happens. In some ways, I do a similar creative job. I like that bit of the job. The three-hour meetings on deferred maintenance are not as much fun, but it’s the same thing when you’re running a band. You’ve got to go make sure the checks are paid, the taxes are paid, all that kind of stuff. It’s a little unusual, but I do approach the job in the same way.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up