What I should have said

Several years back, I received a teaching award from my professional association. I was quite honoured to get this award, and as always with these things, I began my comments with something like “there are so many of my colleagues who deserve this more than I…”. My wife noted that this might have been misinterpreted by the award givers as me telling them they made a mistake. My response to that was “it’s a bunch of psychologists… of course everything I said will be interpreted, mis-interpreted, re-interpreted, and maybe even posed in the form of a (miracle) question.” What I said then was that no teacher is any good unless his students are also good. Learning is a two-way street, and the show is only as good as the audience.

I lay in bed one evening recently, and replayed what I would have said today, were I to receive this same award. And I was very aware of my biases, and maybe why I would no longer be a good candidate. When I was a student, the model for learning was simple. You sat and listened to a professor lecture, you wrote notes, asked some questions, and then moved on – maybe through an exam or paper or two, then done.

Today, such a process would be frowned upon as archaic. Today, learning is meant to be a process of discovery and meaning-making. No longer is there supposed to be a “sage on the stage”, but rather one is supposed to be a “guide on the side”. I play both roles but in the end, I drift towards ‘sage’ simply because that was what I knew. It still seems to me that a guide or even simply a learning facilitator short-changes the value of having someone with experience leading the way.

An example. Dr Jerry Ells was a professor of experimental psychology at the U of C in the 1980s. I took his Human Information Processing course (sounds exciting, right?). It was Tuesday/Thursday afternoons, for 75 minutes. Time flew by. He would enter the room, make some opening remarks, and inevitably, out came the chalk (yes, chalk) and he would begin to draw on the blackboard. (For those of you too young to remember, a blackboard was a large piece of slate that hung on the wall and you used chalk to write on it.)

Always, he drew an X-axis “this is time…” and then a Y-axis “and this is units of response”… and away we’d go. He would pose the question (maybe ‘reaction time as a function of attention’), then draw the graph as he explained the psychophysics, and when he was done, the blackboard looked like the graph in the journal article, and you understood the *process* of the experiment, not just the findings. To this day, when debriefing psychoeducational results of testing kids to their parents, I often end up flipping the page over and drawing Broadbent’s (1963) model of human information processing as a way to explain their kid’s thinking processes… input, processing, storage, and output… I remember this 33 years later because of how it was taught to me. I am not convinced I would remember it had I just read the article itself, with its dry intro, review, methods, results, conclusion. Would it have come alive as it did through Dr Ells’ way of lecturing?

Deep down inside, I believe I deserved this award precisely because I revive the “sage on the stage” stance in my teaching. Someone does have to be an expert. Someone does have to synthesize years of learning and experience into a form that students will receive and do with what they will. Not everything can be discovered and made sense of, without input of those who have travelled the path before.

At the same time, my moment has passed. The constructivists seem to have won. Now my “opinion” is as valuable as the opinion of anyone else in the room with me. The meaning I made of an experience is re-interpreted. Re-evaluated. And even rejected. Even when it was right.

Cue the constructivists with pitchforks and torches. I used the word “right”.

 

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