Friday, February 18, 2011

The continuing quest to be a better teacher


I remember when I joined the university about 17 years ago (it feels like only yesterday!) I was given the task of handling a laboratory class. I already had some experiences as a graduate assistant during my time as a Ph.D. student so it was not very difficult. I think I did quite a good job designing new experiments, interacting with the students and helping them with the experiment and marking the lab report. During the first few months, I had to attend induction courses including one or two sessions on teaching and learning. I don’t think I learn much on the learning theory or pedagogy then but I still remember a session where I had to give a mock lecture that was recorded and later commented by the facilitator. That was how much the training I received to become a teacher (lecturer) and I was supposed to be ready to carry out the task of educating the adult students. Without sufficient knowledge in pedagogy and teaching techniques, I was forced to use my intuition and developed my own approach based on my limited understanding of what good teaching is all about.

Now fast forward and looking back, I think I am a better teacher now than I was 17 years ago—but without seeking new knowledge via self-study, my pedagogical approach and teaching skills probably would not have changed very much. Obviously the task of preparing teachers for the profession is a complex and challenging one. Teachers, especially lecturers in higher educational institution should not take it for granted that the basic training in teaching is adequate to help students to learn effectively. Knowledge is not static – indeed it should expand, honed and enhanced. I believe educators at all levels, from kindergarten to university, should always seek new knowledge not only in their area of specialization but also in other disciplines. I always believe that we can only get better, provided we are willing to learn! As someone who is not formally trained as a teacher, I always on the lookout for good resources (books, websites, blogs or courses) on teaching and learning. My motivation is to enhance my teaching based on sound pedagogical principles and ultimately this hopefully would benefit my students’ learning.

In view of the dynamic progress in the 21st century learning environment and the changing needs of our students, teachers (lecturers, faculty) should strive to seek new knowledge and skills through a continuous professional development programme. According to Grant "Professional development ... goes beyond the term 'training' with its implications of learning skills, and encompasses a definition that includes formal and informal means of helping teachers not only learn new skills but also develop new insights into pedagogy and their own practice, and explore new or advanced understandings of content and resources”. In other words, professional development involves activities or programmes that develop an individual’s skills, knowledge, expertise and other characteristics as a teacher.

The development of teachers beyond their initial training can serve a number of objectives (OECD, 1998), including:
  • to update individuals’ knowledge of a subject in light of recent advances in the area;
  • to update individuals’ skills, attitudes and approaches in light of the development of new teaching techniques and objectives, new circumstances and new educational research;
  • to enable individuals to apply changes made to curricula or other aspects of teaching practice;
  • to help weaker teachers become more effective.
What kind of new knowledge, skills and competencies that teachers should equip themselves? In this regard, Paulsen (2001) proposed that teachers should master three types of knowledge: (1) content knowledge—knowledge of the facts, principles and methods in the discipline that is being taught, (2) pedagogical knowledge—understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it, independent of the discipline in which the learning takes place, and (3) pedagogical content knowledge—a term coined by Shulman (1986) to denote knowledge and understanding of the learning process in the context of a particular discipline.

It goes without saying that mastery of the subject matter (theories, principles, and concepts) is essential to help students learn the subject. Assuming that one has mastered the subject content, one also has to understand how their students learn – the learning process. In this regard, a teacher should have some basic understanding of learning theory, Bloom taxonomy, etc. Next, according to Shulman, a teacher should also have a pedagogical content knowledge. It represents “the blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems, or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction”. In other words, teachers with good pedagogical content knowledge are able to explain and transfer the knowledge of content to their students with clarity and meaningful. This means that the teacher would design the teaching approach in such a way, using appropriate techniques (e.g., demonstration, graphic representation, video, factory/site visit, etc., interview, role play, games, etc.) with ultimate aim to make the subject comprehensible. For example in my course, I always use demonstration in the classroom to illustrate certain concept. In designing a suitable demonstration, first I need to have in-depth understanding of the concept myself. Then I would think of a way to demonstrate it in the simplest possible manner. In my classes you might learn why the tomato sauce flows more readily than the plum sauce, why the chocolate bar melts in your mouth, why the soft margarine is spreadable but the block margarine is hard, etc. There are at least two reasons for such an approach. First, it lets the students see the relevance of the information. Second, it helps the students own the knowledge; they can see with their own ears and eyes what the concepts mean for them. Apart from demonstration, I frequently used analogy to illustrate certain abstract concept.

How do teachers seek new knowledge in their subject matter (content knowledge), pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge? This can be achieved in several ways and here I’d like to share my own approaches:

Attending short courses – Attending short courses related to the discipline or subject matter is a good (and faster) way to improve knowledge and gain in-depth understanding of the subject. By attending these courses, I get to learn something not normally found in the book. I remember many years ago I attended a certification course in Australia – it was a five-day intensive course conducted by an instructor with more than 25 years practical experience in the field. He shared his real industrial experiences and most of the examples given were from his consultation work with industry. Those were very invaluable knowledge that cannot be found in a standard text book. The knowledge I gained from these courses has benefited the students’ learning significantly and adds value to the course. With respect to pedagogy, I have participated in a workshop on using technology in the classroom, leveraging learning management system such as Moodle to develop e-learning courses, developing module, introducing active learning into the classroom, etc. The idea and knowledge I gained from the workshop led me to make significant modifications to my teaching approach, experiment with problem-based learning, new pedagogical approaches, and new tools to help enhance my students’ learning experience. These efforts, taken together, result in continuous efforts to refine, change, remove, and add both to the content of my courses and to the methods I use to deliver that content.


Reading – I constantly look for interesting resources (books, articles) and ideas to incorporate into my lectures and classes. The reading fuels both my teaching (as well as my research), as I am constantly exposed to new ideas, techniques and points of view. On the pedagogy aspect, I’d like to recommend a few books to get at least basic pedagogical knowledge:
  • Alan Pritchard (2009). Ways of Learning – Learning Theories and Learning Styles in the Classroom, 2nd edition. This book presents basic theories on learning, followed by the two major schools of psychology that have dealt with learning: behaviorism and constructivism. I like the simplicity of the presentation – good introduction for the novice teachers (non-education background);
  • Susan A. Ambrose and others (2010). How Learning Works – 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. [Excerpt from the website: “It introduces seven research-based principles of learning and addresses issues such as prior knowledge, knowledge organization, motivation, and metacognition. Written to be accessible and practically useful, this book helps to explain why certain teaching approaches do or do not support student learning and provides faculty with a framework for generating effective approaches and strategies in their own teaching contexts”].
  • Barbara Gross Davis (2009). Tools for Teaching, 2nd edition. [Description copied from the preface: “Tools for Teaching provides new and experienced faculty in all disciplines with practical, tested strategies for addressing all major aspects of college and university teaching, from planning a course through assigning final grades”].
Of course, there are more books that you can read but let’s start with a small step if you haven’t started at all.

Educational website and blog – This is another useful (or shall I say VERY USEFUL) source to obtain information and new knowledge in subject content and on pedagogy. For example in my area (food science and technology), Institute of Food Technologist (USA) website publishes latest information on various aspects of food science and technology (processing, ingredients, nutrition, food safety, etc.). As for pedagogy and teaching/learning, there are plentiful of good websites such as Faculty Focus, Edutopia, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Higher Education, etc. Often some websites, such as Faculty Focus, provides free articles that are downloadable as PDF file. Over the years I have amassed a huge collection of articles from various websites. Unfortunately I have not read all but I know there's a pool of knowledge on my computer waiting to be tapped.

We should not forget blog and social community network group where educators meet to discuss and share their thought on various issues. One example is Classroom 2.0 (social network for those interested in Web 2.0 and Social Media in education). If you are into using technology, there are plentiful of expert blog such as The Rapid E-learning blog and informative blog such as ZaidLearn.

Journals – If you want to read the latest research in your discipline there’s no substitute for reading peer-reviewed journals. Generally there are two types: Review journals which publish review articles and research journals which publish original research findings. Some journals are only accessible if your institution has a subscription. Others are accessible free of charge through open access. There are a number of open access journals in education, for example the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. To find the open access journal simply go the extensive online catalogue, Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Here I copied the description about DOAJ – “This service covers free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals. We aim to cover all subjects and languages. There are now 6175 journals in the directory. Currently 2631 journals are searchable at article level. As of today 510028 articles are included in the DOAJ”.

To improve the so-called 'pedagogical content knowledge', there are journals in certain discipline that focus on the pedagogical aspect of teaching/learning the content of the discipline. Just to mention two examples, in chemistry there is Journal of Chemical Education (copublished by the ACS Publications Division and the Division of Chemical Education) and in food science we have Journal of Food Science Education (available free online), co-published by Institute of Food Technologist, USA and Wiley.

Well, there’s so much teachers/lecturers/faculties can do in terms of their own professional development. The bottom line is continuous professional development of teachers can no longer be viewed as an option but as a necessity, if we were to enhance the standard of education at all levels.

References and further readings:
  • Paulsen, M.B., “The Relation Between Research and the Scholarship of Teaching,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Vol. 86, 2001, pp. 19–29.
  • [Grant, C. M. Professional development in a technological age: New definitions, old challenges, new resources [Available online]. 

1 comment:

  1. Great article! Thanks for the information. I have read some of your previous post. They all are interesting and informative and your this post on online learning is superb

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