This afternoon I met up with Dr. Michael Sweet, a fan of Roman history and the director of Instructional Development in the Center for Teaching and Learning at UT. We chatted about flipping courses, teaching attitudes, team-based learning (one of his special interests), and discomfort in the classroom. It was a great conversation for me and I wanted to write about some of the things that emerged for me.
We talked a lot about how the flipped class can create instructor discomfort. Experienced instructors are pretty comfortable with standing in front of a group of students and delivering content, perhaps breaking up their content delivery with a few questions for the audience. Of course, we weren't always comfortable with this mode of instruction. It took practice, trial-and-error, and a lot of discomfort. We looked to our own teachers as models to imitate. After teaching a lecture-based course a few times, however, we realize that it's not so bad. We have our Power Points (of course we fiddle with them each semester); we have our jokes; we have our "teaching persona". We walk in, we entertain and instruct, and we leave. The audience of students is often pleased with our performance. Throughout, we are in almost control of the script the class will follow. Sure, a few students may ask questions, but for the most part we say exactly what we had planned to say. After a few semesters, we even know what questions the content will elicit and have well-crafted answers ready to go.
When I walk into my flipped classroom, armed with a PowerPoint and a plan for the discussion, I am aware that I have no idea what is going to happen. We will start where I choose, but we will end where the discussion takes us. It used to be that I ran the show, scripted the performance. Now it's my students who do that. Sure, I set the topic for discussion and get the ball rolling. I stage interventions from time to time. Often, though, I feel like I am trying to herd a clowder of wild cats. This is a good thing. This is what student-centered learning is all about. It's an adjustment. When the class discussion does not unfold exactly as I imagined it would, planned for it to do, I sometimes leave class feeling like I didn't do my job. I have to remind myself that this sense of slight disorder is what a flipped class is all about. I don't want to create the impression that my class is chaotic and discussions jump all over the place--not at all. But it's certainly true that discussions take turns that are unexpected. One of the big lessons for me in these first few weeks is that it is my job to come to class with a plan; and it is my job to be ready to abandon the plan and improvise at a moment's notice so long as learning is happening. I have to remind myself of this every Monday and Wednesday as I make the walk from my office to my classroom.
One thing that has helped me in the transition from a professor-centered to a student-centered classroom has been to remember that, in a way, I've already taught the class. The recorded lectures in which I deliver content are the backbone of the class. If that's all they ever get from me, they've gotten a better version of this class than any other group of students. Whatever else they get is a bonus; it's value-added. If we don't cover absolutely everything I intended to cover in a particular class meeting, no problem. Whatever we did do was a bonus. They are also getting several other bonuses: an active discussion board on piazza.com, a Twitter feed with weekly Tweetchats, a class Facebook group.
In student-centered teaching, it's really not about me, it's about them. It's not about what I am doing but about what they are learning. I have long been a critic of the notion that good teaching can be equated with inspirational, charismatic performances at a lectern. It's nonetheless been a challenge to rid myself of the belief that I can inspire students to learn through a witty, well-delivered lecture. Even though I've sat in enough classrooms of very good teachers--watching their students surf the web, work on their math homework, and shop for a dress--to know that the focus has to be on student learning rather than faculty teaching, it's still difficult to fully embrace the consequences of that realization. Good teaching has less to do with us (the teachers) and everything to do with our ability to increase student learning, however we may do that. Dr. Eric Mazur addresses this in his talk "Confessions of a Converted Lecturer."
There is a lot of evidence-based research on student learning. One very clear conclusion: active, engaged students learn and retain knowledge better than passive students listening to a lecture, no matter how talented the particular lecturer might be. The challenge for an institution like UT Austin: turning a class of 400 students (or 200 or 800) into active learners. The other challenge: persuading faculty, especially in liberal arts, that we can let go of our lecture-based mode of content delivery (or, really, remove it from the space of the classroom) and turn the classroom into a space for engaging our students in discussion and critical thinking--even if this means that, sometimes, we are going to feel a little out of control, uncomfortable, out of our element. Because, after all, it's not about us; it's about our students.