Faculty Development 101 – Challenge with Love and Plan with Conviction

THE CONTEXT

Each week ALT Lab holds open hours we call the Agora. It’s a time where anyone who is interested in something new, building something, or exploring ideas can come, drink coffee, and figure things out. (I wanted to write: “and change the world,” but that may be just my dream) It’s fun and always different. I really enjoy the general atmosphere that moves beyond “let’s fix it” and toward “let’s build something new!” It’s groovy.

agora

Last week a faculty member who has labeled himself a “frequent flyer” wanted to talk to me. I’ve seen Professor X a lot. We have had many conversations over the last year and a half, so I wasn’t surprised to see him. Now this guy has been around a long time. He is respected and established. He has a light teaching load and teaches those difficult 150 + student classes. Most importantly, he likes teaching. I accurately guessed the question he asked: “How do I get my students to ask questions in class? Questions that demonstrate they can think critically?” We’ve been over it many, many, many times.

THE CHALLENGE

For those reading some of my posts on faculty development, you know that my thinking has shifted away from the concept of “faculty development” and toward the idea of “faculty learning experiences.” Professor X and I have met a crazy number of times and he has met with others even more, but little has changed despite his best intentions. Why? After all, he’s the one framing the problems, the challenges, the desire for something different. Why the lack of movement? I argued in an earlier post that I don’t think that most of our deepest beliefs (and the assumptions that inform them) and our behaviors are largely a product of making well thought out decisions that are based on sound evidence and good arguments. Rather, I believe that what we learn to do well (including changes) we learn by doing it. We must experience it in dynamic and personal ways. Faculty are no exception. In fact, it might be more important for faculty given the numerous challenges they must navigate in their professional (let alone personal) lives.

The challenge I placed on myself was (and is) this: How can I construct a learning experience within a 30 minute time frame that challenges this instructor’s assumptions about teaching and learning, have him commit to one particular thing he will do differently in light of the conclusions he draws, and plan out exactly what he will do in the next class that is innovative and feasible?  OK, of course there is a lot we can break down here, but I’m trying to keep it fairly short. Please comment or email me (ehale2@vcu.edu) if you want my entire thinking and approach. I’ll gladly share it.

THE APPROACH

1) Create a disorienting, but safe, dilemma: I told this instructor that his question is so far beyond what he can facilitate and what his students can do well that we need to find a different, a more realistic approach to engaging students. I was honest, and there was immediate surprise. I told him that we have discussed at least fifty ways to get students to ask questions, but not one had been implemented; so, we needed to change the focus. He agreed to play along.

2) Walk the instructor through they type of thinking s/he wants her/his students to do….without being explicit about it. Once I had figured out the key insight he wanted his students to take away from the next lecture, I merely took one of the suggestions I would have normally offered up and put it to him. I took a very Socratic approach. I said: “Since I don’t know anything about your field, can you explain this key insight to me in the form of a metaphor or an analogy? Or, draw me a picture. I don’t care. I need you to translate it for me!” …… Stumped. Big time.

3) Offer a way out that saves face and points to classroom application. Ok I’m sounding a bit arrogant now, but it is not my intention. I truly believe that my role in faculty development is more about cultivating safe and healthy relationships and using my skills to craft meaningful learning experiences so that innovative practice becomes a reality. What’s the other option? Hope? Not good enough for me at least. I apply the same principle to my undergraduate courses as well. On with it…what did I do?

Professor X was stumped. So, I offered up a metaphor. I don’t know anything about his subject, but I do know that even a bad example can be a good stimulator. It’s kind of like fly fishing. Anyway, I threw out an analogy and he actually liked it. So much so, that he went on to elaborate in ways I had, of course, not considered. Lucky? Nope. Serendipitous.

4) Translate the experience into an plan of action. This is where much of my skill set lies. TOGETHER, we took his experience explaining a key insight in his next lecture in the form of an analogy and crafted a learning experience for students that fit within his context. Meaning, it wasn’t such a large step that fear prevented action. Rather, we framed the experience within the concept of an engaged lecture. He did NOT have to give up his existing powerpoint lecture. He did NOT make students move their seats. He did NOT have to think on his feet. He did NOT have to take a huge risk. We worked within his context and comfort zone, but pushed the boundaries of what his past experience said was possible.

5) Commit. Don’t back out. I made Professor X verbally say he would do what he claimed he would do. I, in turn, said I would help by being there physically. I would even facilitate the activity if he so desired. We laid out a plan on google docs and followed up via email.

THE RESULTS

In the 1.5 years I’ve known this guy, this is the first time he has done anything outside of the status quo despite his desire to do so: didactic lecture. Moreover, he said it was the first time he had acted differently in many years. There was a technological component using google docs recording in real time student thoughts, group collaboration, and large group discussion (remember that it is in a class of 150+ students). I was actually a little surprised at how well the students engaged because they were used to passively listening, and their feedback on this one little change was overwhelmingly positive. So… he did it again, but from a different perspective.

I saw movement from didactic to engaged. He saw movement from “boredom” to “excited” (to use his words) with his students. We both saw movement within ourselves.

I love my job.