Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock

Good Teaching


  A decade ago, lecturing came under fire from the teckkies. The phrase "sage on the stage" portrayed the lecturer as an elitist babbling away behind a podium with little regard for the audience of students. Many universities were cramming hundreds of students into a large lecture hall. Genuine teaching to the students beyond the fifth row was impossible. Many students sat in huge classrooms where the professor (or graduate teaching assistant) came in, threw a PowerPoint on the screen, read the PowerPoint, asked "Any questions?"---and left. 

    That is not teaching. Handing a student a book is not teaching. Showing a video is not teaching. 

    Teaching involves teacher and student being eye-to-eye in a classroom where rich communication can occur. Communication is the central skill of teaching and the critical tool that a teacher uses to assist students to understand. 

    Librarians are in the information business.  Teachers are in the knowledge business, making information meaningful to students. A teacher's job is to help a student associate these verbal or written abstractions with the student's own experiences.

       The science of communication was clarified by Denes and Pinson in The Speech Chain first published in 1963 and updated in 1993. While their original intent was to measure all of the physics involved in getting a message from a speaker to a listener in a telephone system, they researched back into a speaker's production of words, and went forward into how a speaker understood a message.

     Whether it is two friends having a discussion, or a classroom discussion that is being directed by a skilled teacher, speaking is the most effective form of communication possible. Both the speaker and listener must speak the same language and also have a comparable experience base. And a teacher is responsible for being sure that the communication is effective.

    In 1965, Hess and other researchers quantified what good communicators have long known by instinct: you watch for understanding in the listeners' eyes, body language, etc. Pupil dilation is just one of many obvious clues whether listeners are understanding or not. 

    Some students' eyes say "Aha!" Other students' eyes may reveal "Huh?" With face-to-face students, a teacher knows when some do not understand. That is when a teacher asks a student who does understand, to re-explain the idea or give an example. That student will very likely pick an explanation in words that the classmate now understands. The general rule of effective communication can be summarized as "no experience, no meaning."
    Good teaching involves relating concepts to student experiences that make lessons meaningful. And classes vary in their students' experience background. Teaching the same subject to two separate classes will result in no two lessons being the same. —And is why canned lectures by famous teachers don't work.

        Unfortunately, there has been an erosion of good interactive teaching. For nearly two decades, teaching at the K-12 level has been test-prep, having students memorize for state exams. In higher education, rewards now focus on publication. It is not surprising that new teachers lack any good face-to-face teaching models. And young professors may have experienced few good lecturers. 

    We have been here before. Teaching-by-television was hyped as superior in the 1970s. It rapidly failed. For two decades, online meeting programs have offered remote audio-visual "contact" with others, but the resolution cannot pick up pupil dilation, etc. These discussions fall short of direct face-to-face interaction. The teacher-student mind sync, of being together "in the moment," was lost at the back of large lecture halls where the teacher cannot "read eyes" more than five rows back. Same for online.

    Indeed, any media placed between teacher and student erodes this relationship. I have watched many academics who were good speakers on television: Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, etc. I read their books. I understood their concepts. But they were not my teachers because they did not know me. The teachers who really changed my life and would change yours are the teachers who directly speak to us and know us in the face-to-face classroom setting. After 20-plus years of online hype, where are the students who were inspired by distance "learning"? Teachers live on in their students...but not online.