As a teacher educator, I often ask teachers to reflect on their work, in order to nurture reflective practice. Tomorrow, I’ll be doing this again, only this time, I’ll be on the receiving end.
The university’s CLEAR (Centre for Learning Enhancement and Research) will be producing a DVD for a number of former recipients of the Vice Chancellors’ Exemplary Teaching Award to share their thoughts and experience with other members of the university. I, along with a few other former recipients, have been invited to a video-recording session which will take place tomorrow. CLEAR has sent me a few questions to chew over before the videoing. The following are the questions, and my thoughts at the present moment. Of course, as it will be an interactive conversation, what I’ll be actually saying may be different from what I’ve put down here. But the writing itself will be useful reflective experience for me:
1. Can you tell us about the most successful teaching strategy you have? An example of a strategy that works almost all the time would be great. How do you know this is successful in terms of student learning?
I guess I must have accumulated a bag of tricks or strategies over the years, but honestly, there isn’t a particular strategy that stands out in my recollection. If I have to put my finger on one particular strategy that I consciously employ, and if passion counts as a strategy, then that will be my strategy. My students are pre-service and inservice teachers, so to me it’s not enough that my students find my teaching efficient and effective. If I may call it a mission, then my mission is to inspire my students to be good teachers themselves. And to fire up their enthusiasm for teaching, I need to throw myself into my teaching. I guess you can call it walking the talk, or practicing what you preach. I guess that under the goal of showing passion in my teaching, I AM applying a variety of teaching strategies, but probably unconsciously. So interestingly, it’s often from students’ feedback after a course that I realize I have used certain strategies. Like last week, a former student said to another former student on Facebook that I gave out punctuality stickers to encourage students to come to class on time. Another former student mentioned that I made a point of turning up well in advance for a class to chat with the early arrivals, so as to acknowledge their effort, and to find out more about them.
2. Is having fun essential to good teaching? All the time? Some of the time?
This isn’t an important consideration when I plan a class session, though I do keep an eye out for moments when students can have a bit of fun. I don’t deliberately incorporate fun into a lesson; I don’t do fun for the sake of having fun, because I think that can backfire. There’ll always be students who have a more serious temperament, and they might think you’re wasting their time if you put in too much fun, as it were. But having said that, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of our students, and picture what it’s like for them to sit through a two-hour or three-hour lecture. Hence, if variety is the spice of life, then fun is the spice of teaching. So, when I design a task or an activity for a class, I always look for possibilities of adding a bit of fun to the activity. Like last Monday, I was teaching the student-teachers on my CALL course how to create online surveys or polls, and the rationale was that polls are an effective way to give students a sense of involvement. I asked each student to create three polls which would be taken by their classmates, and I allowed them to use gossipy or frivolous items such as How often do you go to Lan Kwai Fong; Which is the best canteen on CU campus, etc. Immediately they became excited about the task, and afterwards they became even more excited in taking the polls created by their classmates. Yes, they had a bit of fun, and I’m pretty sure this was also an effective learning experience for them.
3. How are your assessment tasks designed to ensure students focus on learning important knowledge, skills and values?
I give out detailed instructions about the assessment tasks at the beginning of a course. I actually tell students which class meetings will most correspond with which assessments. Then throughout the course, I remind them from time to time the correspondence between the assessment tasks and the class sessions. If it is a major assignment, I give out a checklist which sets out the detailed performance indicators for each grade. I also put exemplary assignments from previous years on WebCT for them to refer to. Overall, I try to avoid over-emphasising assessment because I want students to learn for the sake of learning. But I don’t dismiss the role of assessment in motivating students and in helping them to stay on track.
4. Can you tell me about how your teaching has changed over the years? Can you give one example of a significant change in your teaching?
Recently, I noticed out of the blue that I’d been making less and less use of PPT in my teaching. Previously, I took a lot of time to create PPT presentations. I even took time to learn the special tricks like adding in animation effects, inserting sound, and so on. Each year, I would revise and improve on the PPT files made in the previous year. But I’ve noticed that in the last couple of years, I’ve been spending less and less class time talking students through my PPT files. Instead, I would either ask students to view the PPT which I’ve put on WebCT themselves, or sometimes I would turn the content of a PPT presentation into a pre-class quiz, put it on WebCT, and ask students to attempt the quiz before class. In other words, I’ve been cutting down the amount of lecturing, and in its place, I use more tasks and activities which students will try in pairs or in groups.
In other words, I’ve been shifting my teaching approach from transmission, which means typically lecturing, to a more task-based orientation. One example I like to cite is that when explaining the design of the Hong Kong English Language curriculum for schools to student-teachers, I used to do it through lecturing, explaining to them how the curriculum was configured. Now, what I do is that I take 30 terms from the official document, put each term on a label, and have students work in groups to produce a mind map which they think will represent the most logical curriculum for English language. When they’re done, I ask them to compare their mind maps, and to explain the logic behind their mind map. My rationale is that working through tasks will enable students to engage with the content knowledge more deeply and meaningfully.