A Grassroots Effort Is Changing College Instruction for the Better

Here is a dirty little secret: I am a teacher at a community college, but I have never taken an education course. The same is true for most of my colleagues at the college level. We all have majored in our “subject,” but many of us have had no education in the area of our primary job responsibility.

Many readers may think that’s a good thing. Someone who has majored in linguistics, for example, will certainly have a deeper understanding about reading than an education major. But developing an understanding of a subject and being able to teach it to others are two very different skill sets. Just ask any college student at any university—even the most elite. We’ve all sat through classes in which teachers have been, well, horrible.

A classic example of such bad teaching is Ben Stein’s lecture in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Thanks to modern technology, today’s teachers no longer rely on the “chalk and talk,” as Stein does in that comedic scene. But modern teaching is not much better. Instead, students are subjected to “death by PowerPoint.” It is omnipresent in the college classroom.

Excessive use of PowerPoint creates a passive learning environment that contributes to lower success and retention rates. In this Business Insider article, Paul Ralph argues that universities should ban PowerPoint because it “makes students stupid and professors boring.” Ralph says that “overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable.”

Our schools do try to help us improve our craft and avoid the issues identified by Ralph. My school, Wake Technical Community College, requires instructors to take 30 hours of professional development (PD) each year. But the problem is that traditional professional development seminars tend to focus on technology and policy. Those are important areas, but they’re not drivers of excellence in teaching and thus student retention and success.

That’s why a few of my colleagues and I recently organized the Wake Tech Great Teaching Seminar. It provides a different type of professional development, with one main goal: better teaching. We’re offering one seminar this fall over three days: August 16 and October 13-14.

Our effort is inspired by the Great Teachers Movement, which has a record of success spanning 45 years. The Movement’s approach to professional development started in the private sector as a way to promote change in large, hidebound organizations. In 1969, Roger Garrison adopted the approach for faculty at Westbrook College in Portland, Maine. Thanks to a grassroots effort, these seminars are now offered at hundreds of community colleges throughout the United States. (Click here for a history of the Great Teachers Movement and examples of seminars.)

This conference is different and works surprisingly well because there is no pre-planned agenda. There is no top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to delivering information. As organizers, we simply do not know the needs of our participants.

Instead, the conference operates on the premise that the best people to discuss a given subject are those who are interested in it. The agenda emerges from the actual needs of the participants in a bottom-up fashion, an approach that relies on large and small group break-out sessions that encourage peer-to-peer reflection.

The small group sessions are based on a “homework” assignment. Each participant writes a paragraph or two on teaching innovation and a problem, such as “What can I do about cell phones in the classroom?” In these sessions, each instructor gets time to discuss an issue that is important to him or her and exchange ideas with other participants.

For example, in a session I attended, an instructor talked about her experience “flipping” a class (her students listen to recorded lectures before class and then devote class time to mastering the material and discussing key issues). While I had heard of flipped classes, I hadn’t mustered the courage to try such a teaching approach until I spoke with an instructor who lived through it. Now I have not only learned about flipped courses in greater detail, but also networked with a colleague who can give me advice when lessons don’t go as planned.

No experts are invited to this conference. They are not needed. The premises of the Great Teachers Movement are very simple:

1. Teachers learn best from each other.

2. There is power in diversity; the more diversity, the richer the outcome.

Here, “diversity” refers to teaching discipline. Participants are put into small groups with others who have as little in common with them as possible. This avoids informational cascades, more commonly known as “group think.” And finally:

3. Less is more: seminars are simple/low tech, with attention given to “uncovering material” instead of “covering” it.

Our seminar uses no PowerPoint presentations or overhead projectors. We have a paper easel that provides a very simple agenda of eating and meeting times. And instead of having an expert conjecture about the problems faculty are facing, the seminar gives faculty the opportunity to talk about their unique problems and to receive specific solutions—ones that can be immediately implemented into the classroom.

Everything we do remains positive and productive. One way this is achieved is by heeding the following “commandments”:

1. Thou shalt provide equal time: Talk often but not so much; facilitators will keep strict time and intervene if an alpha talker emerges.

2. Thou shalt not whine, gripe, or tell war stories.

3. Thou shalt mutually enforce commandments 1 & 2.

My colleagues—who have come together from disciplines as diverse as emergency medical science, radiography, baking and pastry, computer science, chemistry and mathematics—and I are encouraged by the success of our seminar so far. This year it is being funded through a generous private donation and college resources. We’d like to continue the seminar annually and are hopeful that we can acquire more outside funding to promote the Great Teaching principles at other regional community colleges and even some high schools.

Outside of obligatory department meetings, teachers often operate within their own silos. Sure, we see a lot of students. But interactions with other instructors? Not so much. The Wake Tech Great Teaching Seminar will help to break down silos and promote networking and the exchange of ideas. Ultimately, better teaching will lead to increased student engagement, retention, and success rates. And that’s why we’re here.