On Good Teaching and Good Teachers

Question: Dr. Ellen, how do you feel about ivy league schools and other highly recognized public institutions? Do you think that even these schools concentrate on telling the student what to think instead of how to think? Is it even worth it to go to a fancy college where you would spend $40,000-$50,000 a year? What Virginia schools, based on your perspective, would you recommend?

Comment from Dr. Ellen

These are excellent questions. There is certainly the opportunity for more expansive dialogue at institutions like Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Berkeley, or here at William & Mary, primarily because they can attract and hold top thinkers in their fields. Of course, they have to have the funding to do so which is a pressing matter in higher education today. The larger, better known schools tend to have bigger endowments and therefore can attract bigger names to their faculties.

It is important to understand, however, that every school, even the ivy leagues, has departments and faculty that excel and others that don’t. VCU in Richmond, VA., for example, excels nationally as a school of the arts but it is less likely to get accolades for all its programs. Schools in every state experience this; in other words, a school’s standing is variable depending upon the particular departments within the school that you are scrutinizing as a prospective place for yourself.

The moral is, students need to do their homework to find out what schools and which departments in them excel. But read this!

“We have been surprised in recent years by the number of college-bound students we counsel who have already set the expectation that they will continue with a graduate degree in order to achieve a secure professional future. In most cases, these 18- and 19-year-old students have little or no idea what their particular field of study will be or what type of career they want to have during their lifetime. They, and their parents, simply assume that some level of professional graduate training and a degree is essential in today’s complex and competitive society. This perception cuts across all socio-economic categories: Professional and executive families attribute their economic success and security to their advanced education, while those parents who did not attend college or graduate school want their children to have greater opportunities in their adult lives.

The desire to find an undergraduate program that will prepare the student for a strong graduate education drives the college search for many families. What’s more, a growing number of students consider combined or accelerated degree programs a very attractive way to earn their bachelor’s and advanced degrees in a shorter period of time–or to earn dual bachelor’s degrees that will help them better prepare for a variety of academic and professional fields.”

NOTE: Howard Greene and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of the Greenes’ Guides to Educational Planning.

© Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph

I do not appreciate the push for accelerated degree programs. Getting the degree becomes more important than learning how to think.

Learning how to think is far more important and it is not something that lends itself to an accelerated process. It takes time to explore one’s own thoughts and to give due consideration to the thoughts of others. After all, everything we ‘know’ is merely the product of someone’s thoughts – yours, or theirs, or a mixture of yours and theirs. Some thoughts are more provocative than others, and some are more insightful than others. Other thoughts are distorted, biased, inciteful, simplistic; or perhaps even the product of a completely erroneous paradigm to begin with.

Not all thoughts, in other words, are equal

The student has to sift through these conceptual dilemmas and weigh them against their own thoughts and against the ideas of certain authors whom they have come to trust. This process cannot take place in a vacuum. It entails open-ended dialogue of the most elevated kind. It also takes prolific reading and research above and beyond the coursework that any particular program may require of you. Being in an academic program, in other words, is just the tip of the iceberg…an open window to infinite possibility.

© Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph

I found early on in my own academic career that some ideas clearly stood out while others, at the same time, woefully dismayed me. And some of the more dismaying of those ideas garnered the respect of a broad spectrum of the academe!

But that didn’t stop me.

I read those thoughts as all students must, but in my private reverie I dog-eared the pages of special thinkers whose ideas stirred me. Physicist David Bohm was one such author. Others were Edward O. Wilson and Dr. Murray Bowen…and R.D Laing, Gregory Bateson, Jeremy Rifkin, Fritjof Capra, Jacob Bronowski, Paul MacLean, Pierre P. Grasse, Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Paul A. Weiss, Arthur Koestler, J. Krishnamurti, Lynn Margulis, Humberto Maturana, James Lovelock, Vladimir Vernadsky, Barbara McClintock, Rupert Sheldrake…

These were the ideas that took on a life of their own inside me as I tossed and turned in my sleep in those days – not the ideas of Sigmund Freud or even a sliver of the huge literature that surrounds psychiatric subjects like anorexia nervosa, child abuse, addiction, depression. These were superficial concepts. The real meat of the matter, for me, pertained to the conceptual paradigms that generated such thinking. And in the end I found them to be wanting.

People talk all the time in education about academic majors. The academe is built upon the structure of majors but remember that humankind hasn’t always educated itself that way. Philosophers used to study expansively in timelessness. Now philosophy is just another department with a major that you can pursue in college.

© Dr. Ellen k. Rudolph

Intellectuals come to be intellectuals through a primary dialogue process that was characteristic of their particular route through the educational system. It is a common tendency to pass that along in their teaching style just as ‘bookworms’ – professors whose sole focus is on data, not on process – pass along those teaching styles, as well. I would call such data-focused bookworms ‘erudite,’ perhaps, but not real intellectuals.

The problem for the student is to pick and choose their professors based on word of mouth, on observation of their teaching style, on their personal maturity in the classroom, their books, etc.; not on how hard they grade which is mainly how students tend to categorize their professors.

All schools have their good and bad professors, their ‘erudites’ and intellectuals. Shhhhh, some professors aren’t even ‘erudites,’ they are just warm bodies collecting a paycheck from the institution.

Smaller classes generally provide more opportunity for dialogue. Larger lecture classes are not nearly so engaging and often they are quite boring for their lack of personal connection between the professor and students.

Learning is a personal journey

It can neither be impersonal nor rushed.

We have to get passed the idea that ‘teaching’ is purely the dissemination of ‘information’. That is not what teaching is all about. It is far more than that, and any information that is passed along has to be delivered in doses that accommodate the student’s level of interest and engagement. We start doing that in grade school and voila! It degrades from there.

A case in point: you can give a fish to a hungry child, or you can teach a hungry child how to fish so that he/she will eat for a lifetime. The latter is what teaching is about.

The key is engaging a student’s interest so that he or she will be compelled to ask questions and demand hard answers, answers that do not necessarily lie between the paragraphs of your average textbook.

The educational system still seems to think that students come to it with a ‘tabula rosa’ – a blank slate – which is an ignorant myth at best. Even infants have functioning brains that are absorbing and observing the environment every minute of every day. The human, in fact, develops monumentally during these early formative years. By the time they come to school they are already experienced learners.

© Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph

If their teachers, to date, have been mature and inquisitive, curious, expansive, introspective, interactive and lived lives steeped in inspiring dialogue – well, then, the young learner is off to an excellent start.

Otherwise not.

Life is complex

We need to be teaching young people how to engage life in healthy ways; in productive, rather than destructive ways; in expansive versus closed ways. And in order to even GO there teachers have to have gone through that experience themselves and come out productive, expansive, engaged and healthy humans in their own right. After all, we can only pass on what we know. If a professor is innately inquisitive then he or she will most surely pass that along to students and you will behold a wondrous thing.

The best teachers, therefore, are hardly your ordinary humans.

Think about these things when you reflect back on who, so far, have been your most outstanding teachers. If you walk in to a classroom where the professor is engaging upfront and shows an immediate interest in you as a person, and incites passion, take a seat. If the professor is mouthy and likes to write on the blackboard a lot, and reads from his or her notes, high-tail it out of there. They should be painting houses instead.

Also, log into Rate my Professors after every semester. There is power in numbers!

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. © 2010 Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph. All rights reserved.

P.S. A Response from Lois

Ellen, I do have reactions to your “On Good Teaching” essay; not a critique at all but just thoughts that it generated. (I certainly agree with what you say.)

About “highly recognized” schools: I totally agree that one can find superior teachers (as well as bombastic duds) anywhere and that some schools have the dollars to attract the top people in their fields. One of the benefits of top people is that they tend to talk to other top people, so that students are privy, albeit vicariously, to “lofty conversations.” This exposure really can fast-track students and help them see themselves as part of world conversations rather than Podunk County conversations. In turn, these students, as they talk to one another, are doing so from this greatly broadened perspective.

I find myself often asking, “If it’s so good, why does it seem so hard, rare, or whatever?” In relation to your essay, I found my pessimistic voice stage-whispering such things as, “Employers buy degrees, not minds,” “Students (who believe they understand constructivism) no longer tolerate professors’ grading their thinking but only their grasp of information; grading thinking is inherently subjective and thus unfair,” and “With the money woes of higher education and the increasing love affair with technology, do Socratic teaching methods with small classes stand a chance?”

And this partly explains why I wanted to get out of the classroom!
Lois, now an administrator in higher education (Virginia)

A follow-up from Dr. Ellen

Lois, the American business community is a large part of the problem. We can neither accomodate them nor dismiss them. [They] must be re-educated. Just today the national news carried ideas about (duh) teaching kids about nutrition and healthy eating. WOW. Wonderful idea! But there is no room in the elementary or secondary school curriculum for such non-SOL material in most states. SOLs start in the 3rd grade and it gets worse from there. We are not teaching students for LIFE, we are merely making them memorize information. Yet we all know that short-term memory is just that, short term.

Some Helpful Sites

OnlineColleges.org – Online Colleges is a nonprofit resource for students considering attending an online college. As a nonprofit website we accept no sponsorships from the online colleges we list, and thus provide students with the single most comprehensive and unbiased list of online colleges and universities on the web. The goal, is to combine existing lists of online colleges and find previously unlisted colleges and list them all in a single page which students can use to make a more educated decision about where they want to go to college. In addition to linking directly to the college, we maintain a brief descriptive overview of the distance education component of the college as well as list the colleges accreditation information.

CollegeData.com – use the College Match college search engine to find colleges that are the best colleges for you. Use the college search engine to look up colleges by name or find colleges that match your preferences for location, cost, size, entrance difficulty, academics and more.

DegreeDirectory.org – a free, online education directory with over 1000 Colleges, Universities, and Career Schools in its database. To begin your search, fill out one or more of the drop-down menus on the left of the page and click “Search”.

FutureDegree.org – request free information, easily search college and university programs to find the right one for you

The Education Portal – this portal allows prospective students to search for schools by state or by degree type. Find hundreds of original articles about the schools and various career possibilities.

MatchCollege.com – they have over 6,000 technical certification programs, vocational schools, junior/community colleges and 4 year universities in their directory. They have information regarding many aspects of these schools including housing, financial aid, admissions, athletics and more…they also provide statistics broken down by state, city and individual college campuses.

Education Search Portal – a leading online resource for post-secondary vocational education and higher education.

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