One of the classes I needed to take with my Masters program was about teaching. I was happy to register for the class, the professor was one I had longed to learn from, ever since I had begun the program four years earlier—Dr. Melissa Ramos, an extraordinary teacher by reputation, excellent scholar, ordained minister, and theologian. I expected the class to be wonderful, and I was right.
And boy, did I learn a lot!
Besides the usual number of requisite articles and scholarly papers, we also had three text books, two of which were my own choosing. Both of the texts I wanted to read were well worth the effort:
Risky Teaching: Harnessing the Power of Uncertainty in Higher Education, by Jay W. Roberts, is just out and approaches teaching from a vantage I quickly grew to relish.
Transforming Theological Education: A Practical Handbook for Integrative Learning, by Perry Shaw, full of practical resources, charts, and detailed applications.
Roberts begins his discourse on risky teaching with prerequisite qualities for good teachers: “a combination of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, confidence, humility, and external support.” (p10) Throughout the text, Roberts then employs story, self-revelation, concrete examples, and well-supported theory on the merits of “harnessing the power of uncertainty” in teaching—but really, in learning. In fact, both Roberts and Shaw outline a conscious shift from teaching to learning, that less content allows for more better, deeper engagement.
Roberts points out that uncertainty is a part of life, and lauds the merits of learning through “wicked” problems: “complex, open-ended, intractable problems involving multiple stakeholders and no readily identifiable solutions,” (p30) which he also calls VUCAS: “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous situations.” (p134) Rather than create sterile, controlled teaching situations, Roberts promotes porous boundaries between the teaching environment and reality. He speaks of mystery, chaos, contradictory information, disruption, and cognitive dissonance as leading to “consequential discoveries,” led by a teacher who acts as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.”
Six high impact factors for students show lasting significance:
- a truly caring teacher;
- a cultivated excitement in learning;
- encouragement in pursuit of their dreams;
- practical application at internships;
- active involvement in extracurriculars;
- semester-long projects. (p44)
Roberts shows the first three factors as relational, the second three as experiential, and builds on this insight throughout the book in leading to effective, transformative learning. All six factors are fostered in “brave, safe spaces” (p51-54) where students can feel brave enough to engage, yet safe enough to take risks.
Roberts spent as much time on the uncertainties for teachers as he did for teaching situations, categorizing uncertainty as intellectual, social, and inner. The truth of uncertainty, of risk, is the possibility of failure or harm, provoking fear. Roberts’ insight helps to explain why teachers might prefer to retain high control. (p65, particularly). Yet, the passive model of students receiving, then regurgitating information does not often engender transformative learning. Instead, risky teachers lead by being vulnerable, creating experiential learning opportunities, and building consensus with their students. Through wise management of the learning opportunities, risk can create good stress leading to learning, rather than distress from fear or inability.
Both authors endorse backwards design of a syllabus, beginning with Roberts’ “BMAG,” a “Big Meaningful Audacious Goal,” (p84) then integration of early experiences to whet students’ appetites to learn, collaboration in the course design, relevance to the students’ lives and world, and extra time for relationship-building. Experiences can begin with low-risk activities (ex. two- to three-person discussion). Experiences need to support the BMAG, incrementally increase in challenge, and have student buy-in. Experiences also need to fit within the resource parameters of the class and students’ ability. Collaboration can come through giving students choices in what projects they will do, and consensus in what to continue, what to start, and what to stop doing based upon effectiveness, midway through the semester.
Making “brave, safe spaces” requires good framing, how we “invite, introduce, and contextualize the learning activity.” (p108) Good framing recognizes teachable moments and provides specific goals. Roberts endorses students “failing fast, failing cheap, and failing forward” by offering “complex, ill-structured problems without the provision of support structures,” (p107-108, 141) to stimulate exploration and struggle. Assessment comes in ongoing feedback on creativity and perseverance. Both authors admit traditional assessment is difficult in risky teaching, as it is geared towards assessing the product rather than what is learned.
Shaw’s textbook centers around an Arab seminary in Lebanon, discussing their three-year curriculum that concentrates on spiritual formation and life application, with missiological emphasis. Shaw’s practical suggestions in building a curriculum, complete with examples, samples, charts, and statistics, dovetails neatly with Roberts’ textbook. Shaw gives a more comprehensive treatment of what goes into planning a program, the value as well as outcomes of null and hidden curricula, specific teaching tools (right questions, lesson plan flow, structuring assignments), and learning styles.
Shaw contends that the lecture/papers/exams/grade style of teaching creates a sense of superiority in academics and clergy, does not reflect whether students will become good teachers or pastors, and perpetuates disconnect between clergy and congregation. Shaw writes of “deep learning” (Roberts’ “transformative learning”) which requires a holistic approach involving affective (values, attitudes, emotions, motivations), behavioral, and cognitive learning. (p67)
Each chapter begins with pithy quotes, moves to theory, then provides concrete examples, with practice exercises at the end, more as a manual than textbook. Explaining that “learning is a dialogue between content and methodology,” (p169) Shaw outlines a four-step progression for deep learning: hook-book-look-took. Flipping the classroom, students are hooked with the opening exercise, then look together at the book material they already prepared. The took comes in life application, for long-term retention.
Both authors would say effective teachers pursue learning (Shaw, 270) alongside their students. More time is spent investing in the students, checking in with them, regularly reviewing class expectations, offering encouragement through praise and constructive counsel. Greater weight is given to the hidden curriculum of the teachers’ character, demeanor, and methodology. And the goal of teaching is to form students into enthusiastic life-long learners.