We welcomed a new intake on our Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education course. Over Tuesday and Wednesday evening 36 lecturers and post-doctoral students arrived with a range of expectations, hopes, and concerns.
Whether career progression was a motivating factor or not, all sought some support to develop their teaching skills and knowledge. Some would arrive explicitly aiming to grapple with theories of teaching and learning. All would hope to leave the course with new ‘tricks and tips’, practical techniques that they could employ in their classes NOW.
But ‘tips and tricks’ is a misnomer, since it suggests a separation from theory (and that theory is somehow separate from practice). Kurt Lewin, a scholar of very practical inclinations, is reputed to have said that,
there is nothing as practical as a good theory
In outlining the curricular intention of the course we exposed the underlying constructivist philosophies of learning, modeling the method we hoped our colleagues would adopt in relation to their own practice. Why?
The title of this post paraphrases a comment by Parker Palmer about the nature of teaching. In his inspiring book ‘The Courage to Teach‘ he espouses a manifesto for a heartfelt practice of teaching – teaching as service (as distinct from service teaching). Part of his thesis is that technique alone is never enough. We can deploy the most sophisticated or engaging methods, but if they are devoid of a wider purpose they are likely to fail. The reality is that when we experience a good teacher this wider purpose may not be clearly articulated (to us or to themselves). So this is not a call to theory dominated teaching. Rather it links to the questions I think Gert Biesta asks when he seeks to reprieve the language of teaching that seems often neglected by constructivist philosophies. He asks us to think seriously about what it is we think we teach.
Because our license to practice as university teachers is the PhD (or other similar qualification) we are actually licensed to research. We are comfortable with our domains and communities of knowledge. Consequently, we can be mistaken in thinking that what we teach is our subject. But, Biesta and others suggest, what we teach are views of the world and how we engage with that world.
On the course we expose the underlying constructivist beliefs in order to demonstrate how these weave in and through the techniques we use in class. The fact that we construct the course around a small number of key concepts (rather than a list of content); that we privilege reflective modes of inquiry; that we promote dialogical engagement are all enactments of the underlying view of knowledge and the knower. We do not do this in order to recruit them to these philosophies. Instead, we want them to consider the authenticity of what they do.
What is meant by authenticity here?
Going back to the way we try to model the practice we encourage our colleagues to adopt, we are also hopefully modeling an authentic practice. Its authenticity does not derive from its proximity to constructivist approaches to teaching, but to an openness to being questioned. If we want our students to conceive of themselves as makers of the world rather than mere consumers, to be open to different perspectives, to be attentive to the values that underpin and guide their behaviours, then our teaching needs to model that in some way (and in imperfect ways). We need to teach in ways that show the limits of our practice.