Steve Gilbert: What kinds of differences for students can be achieved by different kinds of teachers?
Ed Nuhfer: In the faculty development that I do, I usually try to get faculty to first have the necessary conversation with themselves to know what they want to do. That sometimes involves divorcing themselves from what their favorite mentor did, finding their own strengths and being themselves. The person who is more introspective and prefers working one on one with students can structure the classroom so they can move from group to group, work one on one, and teach self reflection. A really great orator who can hold a room spellbound with a lecture--and we all know they exist-- should be allowed to do this. Like Margaret Wheatley, I have a lot of faith in people and a lot of respect for true diversity--which has little to do with gender or race but more to do with the richness we bring to education by being different. We are not in a one-room schoolhouse. Teaching is a community activity, so every teacher doesn't have to mesh perfectly with every student. The diversity will assure that "perfect match" occurs whenever teachers and students work mutually in good faith. What can be achieved depends much on the ethic of teaching and learning--we use the best tools we know from both sides of the classroom. I addressed some of this in the May issue of NTLF.
Steve Gilbert: To what extent and in what ways does it matter that students and teachers in a particular course have certain complementary attitudes, abilities, cultural background, language, etc.?
Ed Nuhfer: My idea here is that so long as the ethic is one of welcoming acceptance, good things will occur. If we demand others be like us, we may reinforce common biases rather than advance learning. The knowledge survey tool is one we are finding is telling us whether we do one or the other. If pre and post correlate highly, it indicates we have reinforced preconceptions rather than changed minds. In some cases such as having senior majors, in terms of content and professional interest there is a self selection at work that brings to the class the qualities you speak of that are very in line with the professors' interests. Such is not true in general education classes. Is there really such a thing as a terrific course without a terrific teacher? This is like asking if there can be a terrific book created without a terrific author. When we look at teachers as designers of learning rather than as dispensers or entertainers, this becomes obvious.
Steve Gilbert: If someone could design a course that meets or surpasses the expectations of most instructional designers, most faculty development professionals, and most other academic support professionals, how confident could we be that some particular faculty member could teach that course very well? Independent of student background? Etc.
Ed Nuhfer: Don't we see this kind of question answered every day in theatre? The script is the same, the design set is often even the same, but is every Shakespeare play or every Broadway hit of the same quality? One could apply technology and say---well, the best is done and it's on film--let's just show that and never feature a live production again. How satisfying might that be; what would be lost?
Steve Gilbert: Do many experienced faculty and students believe that it doesn't make any difference for traditional age undergraduate students if the course meetings begin at 7am or 11am?
Ed Nuhfer: Some of Cashin's summary research showed time of day didn't matter much regarding satisfaction ratings. I think it makes a great difference with individuals, but Cashin's summary shows it doesn't on the average. Aggregate data and individual data are useful for learning different things. Now if we gave a class at 3:00 a.m. To a world on a normal biorhythm, that would be problematic.
Steve Gilbert: If the course meeting times are 15 minutes per session or 120 minutes? If the teacher has trouble speaking English? If the campus has recently experienced a major tragedy or a major athletic victory?
Ed Nuhfer: Depends on the quality of the use of time, but wouldn't it be a trip as a student to experience what one could learn in both if these were taught by equally committed teachers?! I've gained more from a rare 15 minute presentation at a professional meeting than I've gained in many two hour seminars. What if I could count on one of these AHA moments every fifteen minute period? If you focused on "What if I had only fifteen minutes to teach my course--what would I teach?", I bet most would walk away with something more valuable from that fifteen minute session than if you rambled for two hours without any clear goal in mind for the students or yourself. On the other hand, we think--"I have two hours! What can I do in that which I could not do in fifteen minutes?", I think we have an equal commitment. Now would that yield with the 15 minute course a richer CURRICULUM than everything done in a ritual 50 minutes. Beyond those examples, there are some generally optimal limits set simply by physiology that makes it unwise to go far below (like 30 seconds?) or above those times (15 hours?). What if the instructor was simply dumb--could not speak at all--would there be a way that instructor could teach well? With the right accommodation and equipment, why not? She/he doesn't have to teach like everyone else. So, if a teacher has an accent, is the latter more limited? If an institution has a disruption of either type, isn't optimal teaching seizing that teachable moment for what it can offer rather than for what we planned otherwise to do?
Steve Gilbert: And finally, if education is as complex and profound as implied by my list of questions and my own commitment, how do we reach some conclusions simple enough and reasonable enough and plausible enough to enable us to move forward without going crazy or feeling overwhelmed by the complexity?
Ed Nuhfer: My answer is that if we anticipate that the experience is complex and profound, we can decide (see Ros Zander's Art of Possibility) first that we are going to be happy anyway, and second, that if we are not going to be happy in this, then we should be doing something else that makes us happy. We can enjoy the roller coaster ride for what it is. One conclusion that's simple in education--try to leave each person just a little better after the encounter than before.Best,
Director of Faculty Development and Professor of Geoscience
California State University Channel Islands