Respect the Student, Respect the Work: Lehman’s New Faculty Seminars

People, Daniel T. Willingham writes, “are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.” Discussing this principle in the context of different learning styles and multiple intelligences was our new faculty seminar challenge this past week at Lehman.

Our group changes from week to week, with faculty members attending as schedules and tasks permit. This has created a unique teaching challenge for me as the seminar instructor/facilitator, as we attempt to work through a shared text and keep each other up to date on what we have learned and discussed. Working with faculty in this context has been a marvelous piece of development to sharpen my teaching and facilitation skills with this group of advanced critical thinkers and experienced teachers in their own disciplines.

Each week, we take a different approach to reviewing the previous week’s material so that those who have been absent have the chance to catch up and those who were present can refresh and extend their working memories. This past week, we tried a round-robin version of “recall, summarize, question, connect, and comment” to bring back our memories of YouTube videos and boardwork about the differences between novice and expert thinking. The strategy works well even when participants have little recall to share: encouraging peers to help extend the details builds the group’s working memory while the instructor can prompt and provide clues.

Our review led us into questions of individual learning needs and preferences that nuance or complicate the differences between expert and novice thinking. We turned to Chapter 7 of Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? to look at these questions in more depth. We found that Willingham reviews the research on different learning styles and multiple intelligences with several examples of each, and he concludes that whether or not these styles and intelligences exist, tailoring instruction to these does not seem to be effective.

He suggests instead that the content be the focus of teaching, with changes of pace and strategy to keep students attentive. This increases the likelihood of students retaining what they experience in the classroom (“memory is the residue of thought”) and assists students in making the most of their working memories.

Willingham inserts an impassioned plea to care for students as valuable people regardless of their intellectual capacities or development, arguing that it can be damaging to tell students that they are “smart” when there is much to improve, just as it is damaging to assign more or less merit to students based on their competencies (which he distinguishes from assessing student work: respect your students as people and their work as work, might be one translation of his argument).

We moved, reluctantly, from discussing this potential transformation of classroom assumptions to an energetic exploration of a teaching challenge presented by one of our new Assistant Professors of Library Science, Robin Wright. She asked for feedback on reaching students more effectively in research skills workshops and in making the best use of the time she has with them. Our discipline specific and pre-professional faculty asked excellent questions about her contact with instructors and assessment techniques; the questions led to a set of recommendations that Ms. Wright will be able to implement both in person and online in the near future.

We will take a break next week for the spring recess and return to examine methods of working with differently paced learning in the classroom (some students seem to master material more quickly than others), followed by a week of self-reflection on improving our own thinking.

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