Self-Paced Learning and the Psychic Load of Teaching

Betonwerksteinskulptur "Lehrer-Student&qu...
Betonwerksteinskulptur “Lehrer-Student” von Reinhard Schmidt in Rostock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we look at traditional education and try and explain how it got this way, one topic is so taboo that it rarely gets discussed. as much as we love and value our students, they can be a little hard to take at times. Students, God love ‘em, are chaotic tornadoes of firing synapses, insecurities, ambitions, and hormones supported by sugar, caffeine, and ubiquitous communication tools. I estimated that at least half of my attention as a high school teacher was taken up regulating student behavior at any given time — keeping students on task, keeping them from distracting one another and maintaining a somewhat orderly learning environment. With the other half, I was trying to make at least basic contact with every student over the course of a 90 minute block so we could discuss their projects for a few minutes or more. Add to this all the natural boundary-testing and acting out that adolescents will naturally exhibit, and the psychic load of teaching is considerable.

Without admitting it (to themselves?), many teachers make educational decisions to achieve behavioral objectives. The high prevalence of lecturing in high school classrooms, which is hard to justify on educational terms, makes perfect sense when the goal is to quiet a chaotic roomful of 30 lively students. Research suggests that even in a group conversation of 20 people, it’s natural for smaller subgroups to break off from the group and form their own side conversations. What makes us think that a class of 30 students could or should stay engaged in an even larger “group conversation” — especially one where they are not equal participants but passive recipients?

Whether all that student communication is on or off topic, productive or unproductive, it’s overwhelming for the single classroom teacher to listen, respond, and coach all of those different individuals towards progress along learning goals. Teachers who want to deliver their lecture in peace are often frustrated by students’ tendency to interrupt, tune out, Google their own questions, talk to friends, etc. Teachers who want to give one-on-one attention during class time have to worry about off-task behavior from the students who are supposed to be working independently.
Teachers who want to offer a more interactive learning environment are stretched thin engaging in all the interaction that happens. It’s a lot just to keep up.

My goal in bringing this up is not to blame teachers, but just to recognize that there is a significant amount of interpersonal stress that goes with teaching, in addition to all of the good things about it. My experience working with teachers (and being one) is that this stress motivates teachers more than anything else to improve their craft. We learn on a gut level that we have better teaching days when we are exhibiting good practice, well prepared, and offering students something they want. Nothing drives teachers to rethink their teaching practices like having one of those days where students are tuned out, disrespectful, and dissatisfied.

Self-Paced Learning

It’s for this reason that I believe in automating as much of the “content consumption” in your course as possible, as well as building in multiple opportunities for students to interact with each other. Letting students read, watch videos, ask questions, discuss ideas, and develop their own authentic work products — these are all active, independent tasks that work great between a student, their classmates, and the web tools that support these activities. It makes it possible to differentiate instruction when the teacher is not expected to provide 30 different unique experiences, but rather support students in accessing experiences that have been curated for them. When we talk about the teacher as “guide on the side”, we’re talking about learning experiences that are compelling enough that they can hold students’ attention on their own. A good online course is one where students can freely explore, interact, and discuss your content without having to wait for you to “give it to them”. It should resemble one of those “hands-on” science museums full of cool activities that students can run wild through without waiting for the docent to quiet them down!

Disincentives to Change

I think most of us understand the core ideas behind “flipping the classroom“ or becoming the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage”, and yet most of us do not embody this approach in our daily teaching practice. Why not?

Some have theorized that it’s threatening for faculty to give up their role as the content expert. I think it may have more to do with workload — it’s simply easier to come in and do a book report in front of a quiet room than it is to design interactive learning experiences. Heck, you could probably do 90 minutes on your favorite topic with very little prep — maybe a few PowerPoint slides — and call it a day. Your students would probably evaluate you positively if your lecture was halfway fun and interesting — whether or not they remembered anything from it an hour later. They, too, have been conditioned to expect this kind of experience as “what teaching looks like”, and they will complain if you deliver something radically different from that! Nobody will fault an instructor from just coming in and lecturing, but there are big disincentives (in terms of psychic stress from students) when you design a project that doesn’t work.

I think of taking the responsibility for delivering content off of faculty’s plate so they can devote more time to interacting with students. I’d like to see instructional design departments creating high-quality, reusable learning materials that bring faculty lectures to life, much in the way a TEDEd video builds upon a spoken TED lecture. The core ideas from the talk come from the faculty, but they’re skillfully produced for maximum comprehensibility — with editing, visual aids, and clear emphasis on key points.

To do this requires a greater institutional commitment in dollars and staffing, but it’s the clearest path I’ve seen to freeing teachers to do what they do best— having deep, personalized interactions with students around content. My hope is that it will result in more positive and satisfying interactions between students and instructors as they both get more of what they need from their classroom interactions.

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