Monday, June 25, 2012

Asking them in

My standard for any academic conference is the acquisition of at least one good idea, which seems a fairly low bar, but I've been doing this job for a spell.  Academic conferences these days are more likely to flesh out ideas rather than introduce them.  Even so, you do sometimes run across something really new and worthwhile.

That was the case last week when I spent three days at the Best Teacher's Summer Institute, an annual conference based upon the work of Ken Bain, a historian who studied the approaches used by college professors identified by evaluations, colleagues and students as the "best of the best."   He hoped to discover whether they were more alike than different. 

It turns out that good professors take quite similar approaches to teaching regardless of their subject, personality or training, all of which which Bain wrote about in his book What the Best College Teachers Do.   Here's one example: good professors tend to introduce their subjects as if they were inviting students on a journey or to a fabulous meal.   I liked the metaphors Bain used in this approach.  As he explained it, who would want to come to dinner if the invitation were a bullet-pointed memo ordering you to show up at 6:14 pm, consume 1.3 lbs of spaghetti, drink 2.3 glasses of red wine and clear out no later than 9:00 pm.?

Yet that's how most syllabi and first days go in college courses.  The instructor drearily lays out the requirements, expectations, paper lengths, exam dates, grading scales and the penalties for non-compliance.  I've even heard of some professors who demand their students sign statements declaring that they have read and agreed to abide by course policies or suffer the consequences. 

Contrast that to an approach that might go something like this: "I have this delicious pasta recipe that's been handed down to me from my grandmother.  The sauce is amazing and I really think you would love it.  So I'd be thrilled if you would come over tonight around six.  We'll talk,  we'll make some pasta, we'll drink some good wine and have a wonderful meal.  I know you've got to get up early, so I promise we'll be done by nine.  What do you think?  Sound good?"

Now which evening would you prefer?

Bain called this approach to introducing a course "the invitational syllabus," which is more than just the document.  It's the oral and written introduction that sets the tone and approach for what the course promises to be.   The invitation begins with an engaging question or problem and then asks the students to come along as we explore possible answers or solutions.  It also promises a payoff: if you take this course with me, here's where we're going and what we may discover or acquire by the end.  The key is to begin with a really intriguing question.

For a long time I've known that placing great questions at the core of my teaching is the true difference maker (finding those questions, however, is really, really tough.  Still, when you do...).  Even so, it hadn't occurred to me that my syllabus could become an opportunity to RSVP rather than a pamphlet full of rules, technicalities and deadlines. 

So I guess I just made more work for myself this summer.  Oh well, it's good work.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...