Pedagogy through Observation
How do we learn to teach? Can we learn through reading, through observation, or only through the actual practice of teaching? What are the most useful things we can do to prepare before entering the classroom? How can we “find our voice” as teachers, and formulate our own unique style?
These were some of the questions I struggled with when I offered a semester-long practicum, Pedagogy for Art Historians, at the CUNY Graduate Center in spring 2015. While similar courses had been offered through the department twice previously, this time the class was redesigned as a 50-hour, 0-credit course. A central goal of the redesign was to increase the time allotted to observing classes and working with a mentor. To judge from student feedback, this was the most difficult and stressful part of the course — and also the most useful. This post offers a brief overview of the logistics of the observation/mentoring component of the course and then some reflections on what was learned and what could be improved.
Observation and mentoring were central to the pedagogy course. Students were asked to observe at least three classes by three different professors during the first month of the spring term. In their observations, I asked them to focus on the following questions:
How large was the class?
Was it an introductory course or a more advanced one?
What kinds of students attended it: majors? cross-section of the college? community college or four-year?
- Subject matter
What topic was covered in the class?
About how many images did the instructor use? Were there other types of slides also (e.g. definitions, maps, background information)?
What were the major themes of the class?
- Teaching method
What kind(s) of teaching methods were used, e.g. straight lecture, discussion of images on screen, in-class writing or assignment, etc.?
If several methods were used, what kind of learning was associated with each?
- Interaction with students
What kind of interactions did the professor have with the students?
When did the students seem most engaged? Least engaged?
- What to ‘steal’
What strategies that this professor used might you find useful in your own teaching?
The students wrote a response paper based on their observations, and we also had a heated two-hour discussion about what they had seen. After this, they chose mentors – usually from among the professors they had observed – and worked with them over the course of the term. They were required to:
- Attend the class of a mentor for 3 weeks
- Grade at least one assignment
- Discuss with mentor or help in creating a test, paper or other assignment
- Give a mini lecture within a class or give a whole class, as the mentor sees fit
- Mentor may also wish for mentee to run office/hours/extra help once or do some other teaching-related activity
I met one-on-one with all the students to do dry runs of their lectures, and also, when possible, attended the class they taught and had a follow-up meeting afterwards.
The course also included practice writing syllabi, formulating paper assignments and rubrics, organizing lectures, dealing with discipline, and giving tests. There were readings, but they were less concerned with the theory of pedagogy than with its application: the nuts-and-bolts of running a class, since most students in the course would begin teaching in the fall.
As a ten-year veteran of the CUNY system, I have regularly had the experience of teaching classes I never took (A one-semester global art history survey? Sure. First millennium Egyptian archaeology? Why not?). Pedagogy for Art Historians was another of these experiences. I didn’t ever take a pedagogy class, I just started teaching. When I began, I was mid-way through graduate school, in need of extra cash, and curious about the profession that I was, in theory, spending all this time and energy preparing myself to join. I have always felt that my early experience in teaching saved me. It got me through the hardest years of my dissertation, and suggested that I might actually enjoy the goal at the end of it. In Pedagogy for Art Historians, I wanted to help my students share that experience. I wanted them to feel prepared, empowered, authoritative. The goals of the class, as I see them in retrospect, were as follows:
- De-naturalize pedagogical style. For beginning teachers, there’s a temptation to believe in a pedagogical ‘silver bullet’ — a one perfect way to teach (usually that of a fondly remembered professor from one’s own past). There’s also agony over one’s inability to identify that idealized modus operandi, or put it into practice. Observing several teachers in quick succession helped the students see how radically different styles could ‘work’ equally well. Discussing their observations – and disagreeing with one another as to which teaching strategies were most effective – also reminded the students of how individual one’s experience of a classroom could be. The students ended up with widely varying ideas of what kinds of teachers they wanted to be (charismatic lecturers, facilitators of open-ended debates, etc.). But they all came to see pedagogical style as a conscious choice, one they could craft to serve their students and their own talents or preferences; to me, that was critical.
- Reflect on pedagogical practice, not art historical content. Frequently, as a student, one is so caught up trying to comprehend the material presented in a course, that one does not have time to think about how that material was conveyed. The observations allowed students to concentrate on practice, not content, although they admitted that it was difficult to avoid the temptation of taking content-based notes! As time went on, I began to hear them evaluating ALL their professors this way, including those whose courses they were actually taking. I alternated between feeling proud – look, they really got the point of the exercise, and could apply it to new circumstances – and being convinced that all I was giving them was a new critical vocabulary with which to gripe about graduate school. Still, the exercise was valuable in making students aware of how much went on, as it were, below the surface. The syllabus and powerpoints might be the most visible signs of pedagogical intervention, but they were only the tip of the iceberg.
- Realize that teaching is hard work. For all the students, the most difficult and intense aspect of the course was the class they taught themselves, normally a standard 1 hour and 15 minute survey lecture. Most had some previous acquaintance with the subject on which they spoke, although I admired a colleague who explicitly assigned mentees to teach topics with which the students had no experience. What followed: stress, jitters, occasional tears. Comments like: “how can anyone do this twice a week?” “The time went so fast!” “I finished too quickly!” “They were more responsive than I thought.” “Why didn’t they say anything?” Judging from the reflection papers they turned in, the students learned a good deal, although one did begin, “Overall, I was disappointed in the lecture I gave.”
In retrospect, I feel that more practice running a class would have been helpful, and wish that I had done more ‘low-stakes’ activities — e.g., presenting one object to fellow class members, or running a discussion of a reading — before they had to get up in front of a bunch of someone else’s students. The more opportunities students have to try something out, get feedback, then try again, the more they improve. I should have known this from my own experiences teaching writing (if you assign multiple drafts, the last one is better), but clearly, I didn’t apply it.
- Learn by listening AND by doing. My sense by the end of the class was that observation was really effective in teaching some things. It got students thinking critically about pedagogy, and helped them crystalize their ideas of what kind of teacher they wanted to be. It also gave them a good sense of what the learning and teaching experience was like within the CUNY system – a very different place from the institutions that most of them had come from.
Mentoring had different advantages: it gave students concrete practice in many of the activities teachers do on a regular basis (lecturing, grading, creating assignments, etc.) and allowed them to see which of these activities were easier or more difficult for them. Knowing what comes easily and what doesn’t is helpful, even if the knowledge isn’t always welcome. “Wow,” said one student, “it’s like you have to be a shrink to yourself, just to know how you can teach.” I think that is the essence of reflective pedagogy.
One thing I learned from having the students do observations and work with mentors was that I needed to push them harder to be mindful of their choices for both. The students who learned most from their experiences consciously sought out very different classes to attend, and found mentors who modeled the kind of teaching that they themselves wanted to do. This wasn’t easy, logistically, but the gains were greater; it would be worth extra effort.