In a recent conversation with my mother, I used the word “pedagogy.” “What does that word mean?” she jokingly asked. “From your foot up?” After a moment’s thought, I saw that this was a very apt description of my teaching philosophy.
Pedagogy must start where there has been experience, where a foot has gone.
Students learn best when material is related to their life experience. Whether by giving analogies to daily life, referring to previously learned material, or linking chemistry to their own majors, contact with the student’s world needs to be made. While the classroom provides the opportunity to present these connections, I highly value my faculty/student interactions outside of the classroom as my chance to develop them. It is important to be available not only to answer their chemistry questions but to understand where they are in their lives and the influences that hinder their ability to concentrate. I often find that these encounters give me a different way of looking at the material and I can present chemistry in a more relevant way to the rest of the class the next time, whether by changing the context or by changing the pedagogy.
Another aspect of the student’s foot is noticing the direction in which it is pointed. Students attending large institutions are often lost as far as who to turn to for guidance and mentoring. I use my advising and one-on-one time with them with two thoughts in mind. By listening to their aspirations and their dreams I can see how to link course material to their futures. I can also see how I can help them get the experiences they need to not only get where they are going but to also have confidence that they have made a good decision for their lives.
I need to consider the student as a whole person, not just as a brain to be filled. I must begin by looking where their feet are standing.
To reach the brain from the foot you must pass through the body.
A sleeping student is a closed vessel. Part of the job of the teacher is to provide an atmosphere conducive to learning. This is why humor and enthusiasm are such important assets in teaching. They engage the student and make the class period less threatening.
In addition to having alert students, learning requires the use of differing teaching strategies to reach students with differing learning styles. Combining lecture with discussion, breakout groups and in class exercises can keep the hour moving and provide time for students to begin assimilating the material. Other features such as chemical demonstrations, models, computer animations and technology help visual learners add chemical behavior to their experiences. Even the act of having volunteers from the audience participate in demonstrations creates an atmosphere of openness toward learning. To keep students from feeling like numbers, they need to feel included and involved in the discussion with all their senses. They need to be active learners during the class.
Has it been successful? The evidence of effective pedagogy, the proof that the material is learned, is the ability of the student to apply the knowledge learned.
A fact memorized and regurgitated is not a sign of learning. Animals are often trained to give a particular response for a given stimulus, but we wouldn’t consider it being educated. An understanding of the material must be demonstrated. Assessing understanding is much more difficult than assessing factual knowledge. This, combined with the idea that not all students are at the same level of intellectual development, makes assessment a problematic task (no pun intended!). In whatever form it takes, if a student is able to take facts and apply them in new circumstances, the facts have transformed into ideas, and ideas have been reassembled into a demonstration of understanding. Providing opportunities for students at all levels of intellectual growth to think more deeply will help them develop into more critically thinking people. If the area of application relates to their own field and choice of career, they are helped to be motivated to propel themselves to those levels of deeper thinking.
The ultimate goal of a teaching encounter is to instill enthusiasm that promotes a culture of lifelong learning.
So, where are my feet?
In my own search to find a career path, I had help. Someone came alongside me to open my eyes to the skills that I was motivated to use, and thus I was able to identify a job that I love. Part of my philosophy has sprung from this experience, a desire to give back to others what has been shared with me. But while natural inclinations can provide motivation, good pedagogy requires training and the sharing of ideas between colleagues. I have had and continue to seek out training and new ideas to integrate into the classroom. My current interests include identifying those aspects of chemistry that would be considered to be “intuition,” big picture approaches with which chemists approach problems, and building chemical literacy, building students’ writing skills while using chemical principles. Through these, I hope to help build chemists that have the proper tools to solve whatever problems the next decade offers them.
• Dede Dunlavy, Chemistry & Biochemistry