I envision my role as a teacher in much the same way as I envision my role as a parent: to help the individuals entrusted to my care grow, learn and become the ‘best’ they can be in whatever areas and at whatever level they choose. It is a task that requires equal parts observation and reflection; persistence and flexibility; inspiration and perspiration.
As with parenting, optimizing the experience means that no two individuals enter or emerge from the process exactly alike. This invariably requires balancing the needs of the system with the needs of the individual. And so, while the system imposes demands for measurement and meeting of milestones, sharing unique types of skill and knowledge that are difficult – sometimes impossible – to capture in formal contexts, remains a priority. How can I optimize the learning experiences so that my academic children leave my care better able to meet future demands than when they arrived?
I have explored the answers to this question from many different angles, and the ideas I’ve gathered inform both my own learning and my teaching. I find that ideas with a humanist flavour appeal to me and therefore most inform my own practices. In terms of educational pedagogy, I am fond of Dewey’s philosophies (particularly the role of experience in education). And I find it particularly interesting how theories of positive psychology and andragogy interweave to create life–long learners in all facets of life.
As I have mulled over these concepts, and tempered them with both personal observation and experience, I have come to realize that in learning environments where intrinsic curiosity meets opportunity and the right level of challenge, absolutely anything is possible.
So the question becomes this: how do I create an ‘anything is possible’ classroom? Because it depends on many variables, it’s always an iterative process. But I have noticed that a few of the principles for effective post–secondary teaching identified by Chickering and Gamson contribute a great deal.
Encourage student–faculty contact: I have an open (virtual) door policy. It’s always a pleasure to meet with students in person, and I am available by email at any time. I find that more students take advantage of the email assistance for two reasons: customized help is available at the point of need, and my turnaround time is usually very quick even during off hours.
Encourage cooperation among students: In the MLIS context, many students bring a lot of experience to the classroom – far more collectively than any one individual or teacher can provide. I encourage students to recognize themselves and their colleagues as allies and leaders of the future. Formal group assignments and informal class discussions help us get to know each other individually. I have also recently begun adding peer feedback as a component to foster not only more variety of individual feedback, but also cooperation and shared learning experiences.
Encourage active learning: It is a simple truth that activity and emotion create some of our most vivid memories. I encourage both in the classroom. For example, industry partnerships with
organizations such as AskOntario have given my students valuable hands–on training, usually only accessible to employees, based on real–life reference situations. Similarly, guest speakers are a great way to connect emotionally with students. MLIS 9003 guests have included our local library manager (Readers Advisory) our children’s literature professor (Dealing with Difficult Situations) and library industry pioneers (Solving Industry Problems). I also make a deliberate effort to include learning activities in every unit I cover. I repurpose games like Pictionary to enhance reference interview material, and I have created my own learning tools like ‘traveling folders’ and ‘reference question rings’ to help students apply, practice and learn collaboratively.
Give prompt feedback: Timely turnaround is part of prompt feedback. But feedback is also active engagement in the curriculum, and response to hands–on effort during classes and exercises. If there is one thing I know for certain, it’s that students learn so much more from the interaction and feedback they receive before they submit their assignments than they do from receiving their graded papers back. The grade is usually the end of the learning conversation, not the beginning. Consequently, I offer students who wish to engage an exceptional level of feedback in advance of assignment due dates.
Respect diverse talents and ways of learning: This is perhaps my favorite principle. Each person brings a different set of experiences and expectations to the classroom. Over the years, I have had the privilege of serving students with learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, socio–economic concerns, ESL issues, and individuals with their own unique personal goals. I have encouraged students to seek out appropriate support services. I have looked for assistance for students who were able to perform very well cognitively but for whom their grasp of written English was impeding success. I have provided customized syllabi for students who felt the standard syllabus was not sufficiently interesting or challenging. I regularly offer multiple ways of participating in class discussions. If a student has committed to taking my class, then I believe they deserve the best experience I can provide.
In closing, I would like to share a quote commonly attributed to John Wilmot (1647–1680) that’s relevant to both parenting and teaching: this gentleman said, “I used to have six theories about raising children. Now I have six children and no theories…” In many ways, I also feel the irony of this statement in the academic context. I have shared the highlights of my success with you here, but my theories are borrowed from people who have come before me, and in many ways, effectively implementing them is a work in progress. Nevertheless, I press on in the knowledge that a teacher’s strength lies not in having a fixed set of pedagogical tools that work without fail, but rather in a willingness to fine–tune methodologies in response to experience and feedback, and to explore new methods as they emerge. I expect that curiosity and adaptability will be my greatest teaching assets going forward.
Chickering, Arthur W., and Zelda F. Gamson. 1987. Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. American Association of Higher Education Bulletin 39 (7): 3–7.