The Four Cornerstones of Teaching

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In my first semester as a teaching assistant in the English Department at the University of Houston, I took a course for beginning teachers which asked me to reflect frequently on teaching and learning. That class gave me the chance to begin my teaching career by examining the assumptions I hold about how learning happens and what good teaching looks like. By acknowledging my assumptions, I could look more closely at both my own teaching practice and the wide body of literature on teaching and thoughtfully implement good teaching strategies for my students and myself.

For me, one of the most difficult parts of this process was understanding the ways that I — who chose to devote my life to reading, writing, and learning — was different from my students — who took First Year Writing because of a requirement, not because they enjoyed writing. It is easy  for those of us who have succeeded in college to forget that not all of our students have the same goals, learning styles, and drives that we do (especially when we don’t take the time to acknowledge these factors for ourselves), and when a student’s primary goal is to finish a degree and get a job, her attitude towards learning and motivation is different than for someone like me. By understanding that difference, I am better able to relate to my students, and better able to meet their needs, learning strengths, and individual motivations.

Examining the assumptions we hold about teaching and learning is the beginning of a reflective teaching practice, which I have come to think of as the most important part of teaching. Too often, teachers — especially new teachers — don’t take the time to examine these assumptions and so don’t have  framework for this kind of reflection. This leads to unreflective teaching, and the kind of teacher who may not even realize the problems in his classroom. But doing what has worked for other people and even following “best practices” will only really work when we pause and reflect on how our teaching works for us, with our specific students, in our classrooms/departments, in the various institutional and cultural contexts of our university.

In Rethinking Teaching in Higher Education (2004), Saroyan and Amundsen define these factors — teacher, students, subject, and contexts — as the four commonplaces of teaching. They agree that our assumptions about each of these areas affect everything about our teaching and our students’ learning, and only by examining our assumptions about these four commonplaces can we begin to improve our teaching by moving beyond what we know (or what we think we know), and finding out what works. As we think about the four cornerstones of teaching, it is important to remember that teaching is about more than covering a subject area — it is about covering a subject area so that students learn. While our subject matter certainly impacts our teaching, we have to think about the classroom as a complex intersection of these four commonplaces and reflect frequently on what is working.

Even better than improving teaching by reflecting on these commonplaces, though, is starting new teachers on a path of reflective practice. It was with this goal that the Division of TA Resources hosted its third annual TA orientation. On Thursday, August 23, a group of 150 new teachers from 10 departments gathered for a CTE-sponsored orientation for new TAs at the University of Houston. The new teachers listened to a brief presentation from CTE Director Dr. Dave Mazella and the CTE Division of TA Resources Coordinator Dr. Tamara Fish about Saroyan and Amundsen before discussing their assumptions about the four common places of teaching. Instead of sharing their ideas verbally, the new TAs created a small gallery of observations and thoughtful ideas about the four common places of teaching, and came away from the event with important reflective questions to ask themselves through their teaching careers.

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In considering themselves as teachers, TAs noted that we should “Think about [our] ‘teaching persona’ and how that fits into [our] teaching experience.” Another group suggested that we should remember the kinds of “student-centered” learning experiences student we enjoyed as undergraduates and do our best to create those experiences for our students.

When thinking of their students, TAs know we need to remember that “Cultural Differences may affect how students interpret information. We should be sensitive to this.” Another group noted that the diversity at UH also means that our students will have “different levels of interest, ability, self-discipline, language, etc.” We should remember the differences between ourselves and our students, but also remember the differences between our students — we can help create an environment where students can learn a lot just by interacting with other students with different backgrounds.

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When thinking of their subject matter, TAs noted that it is important to help students understand their course by modeling good thinking and learning, and to set clear expectations in all classroom activities. Another group noted that no matter the subject, “Active engagement and discussion will promote retention of course content.”

About the context of the university of Houston, which certainly includes the diversity noted above, one group reminded us to take into account the parking situation and potential weather and traffic issues specific to our university and our city.

And one group gave us some especially good advice, especially on the first day of classes:

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What are your assumptions about the four cornerstones of teaching? How do those assumptions play out in the classroom?


New Faculty Workshop — Working with Graduate Students

Last Tuesday new faculty met to discuss supervising teaching assistants, research assistants, and graduate students in various disciplines. The workshop was co-sponsored by the UH Commission on Women, Human Resources, and the Center for Teaching Excellence.  Dr Julia Wellner of Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Dr. James Zebroski of the Department of English, and Ms. Aymara Boggiano of the CTE shared their experience working with graduate students over the years. 16 other faculty attended this discussion in the Faculty Senate offices in 306 M. D. Anderson Library.

Dr. Wellner emphasized that faculty should establish a firm, yet open relationship. She explained that a strict professional engagement that shared concerns about the graduate student’s community worked best for both parties. Sharing one’s interests is different than sharing one’s life, for example. She also stressed that students should be encouraged to lead when they need to lead.

Dr. Zebroski suggested that teaching assistants and research assistants be introduced to the CTE’s learning modules to address many concerns with classroom management and teaching strategies. Dr. Zebroski addressed the benefits of a first-semester orientation course that demonstrates research-based teaching methods. He also recommended that faculty should not make surprise observations for teaching assistants, but schedule a pre- and post-observation meeting to discuss plans and reflection on the classroom time. When mentoring teaching assistants, faculty should have the TA focus on just one or two items and encourage the observation of other TA’s in the department. Finally, he encouraged reflection for both the TA and the supervisor — “making visible what is going on in their head.”

Aymara Boggiano, Director of TA Resources in the Center for Teaching Excellence presented this slide presentation, with commentary.

Supervising Graduate Students

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: Breakout Session Notes, Ppt, and Summary, Oct. 14, 2011 (Jim Garson)

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Break Out Session:  Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking


Richard Armstrong, Associate Professor, Modern and Classical Languages, and Fellow in the Honors Program

Rebecca Forrest, Instructional Assistant Professor, Physics

Lonny Hoffman, George Butler Research Professor of Law, UH Law Center

Maria Solino, Associate Professor of Spanish Literature and Film

Department of Hispanic Studies

Moderator: James Garson, Full Professor, Department of Philosophy


The panel began with an exercise asking all the participants to write out answers  two questions (exercise and other ppt visual materials can be found here):

1. Give an example of an intellectual skill that qualifies as an example of critical thinking.

2. How do you help students master that intellectual skill?

Three or four answers to the first question were briefly discussed, and as expected, they illustrated very different intellectual abilities, among them, artistic creativity, seeing the value in another’s point of view, problem solving, and the ability to distinguish cause from mere correlation.

Then the panelists introduced themselves and explained how their own interests are connected to critical thinking.

At that point a brief, and then a very wordy, definition of critical thinking was offered as a way to try to focus on exactly what we are seeking when we hope to promote critical thinking.  Almost every cognitive skill other than rote memorization has been classified as critical thinking by someone, and even memorization drills are classified as critical thinking in some websites. So the puzzle over what critical thinking is remains.

However, a discussion of specific critical thinking skills and how they can be promoted brought out some interesting themes related to aims in the classroom:

*  to welcome asking and answering questions of the form: “What if?”, “How do we know?” and “Who cares?”

*  to have the flexibility to suspend ones own beliefs, and to see the world from another’s point of view

*  to be creative and voracious readers, with nuanced appreciation for ambiguity and novel context

*  to be endlessly curious

*  to welcome and to profit from being wrong

*  to be able to evaluate the accuracy of sources of information, for example information found online

*  to slow down, to see the wider view, to be circumspect and thoughtful

A common thread in many of these ideas is metacognition, or executive functioning, the ability to consciously evaluate one’s own learning process.  Organizing classroom goals around opportunities to practice such talents is a great way to improve teaching effectiveness, and to promote valuable higher level thinking skills.

Jim Garson