Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Keeping fresh

Kathy Sierra has a great post about pushing your skill set. Now, as usual, Kathy is talking primarily to tech people, but, as always, there is a lot that speaks to me as an educator. She starts out saying:
Are you doing anything to keep up your skills? Some of you don't have a choice--especially if you're doing client work where each new job "forces" you to learn something new. But for those of us who--like me--are mostly working on our own stuff, we can get... a little lazy. The techniques we've been using are like old friends. Doing it the way we've been doing it feels comfortable and less risky.

There has been discussion lately at my school about how students make use of what they call the "fund": knowledge passed from student to student, class to class about what particular professors emphasize, what they test on, etc. There was concern that maybe students aren't as "present" as they might be in class because of it. Now, obviously, this isn't anything new. Most of us have made use of that kind of information ourselves. But what amazes me is the reaction of many people to the situation. There is a feeling in some quarters that we should try to limit this in some way. No one is suggesting that maybe we should not teach the same class the same way with the same assignments and tests each and every year. Why? My guess is that it has something to do with what Kathy would probably call our "skill set". We are comfortable with the way we teach, with the material we present and the way we evaluate students. We shift the blame for the problem to them.

How can we push our skill set as educators? There are so many ways and they are so common and ordinary that I hesitate to even discuss them. But I think it is good for me to remind myself.

One way, of course, is just to learn more about our area of expertise. Even if you teach ancient philosophy, there must be something new you could learn about the subject matter.

If, however, you know absolutely everything there is to know about Plato, then I guess you have to think about learning something about teaching and learning. There is always something new to be learned in that area. Maybe you could learn about technology and how it might enhance what you do in the classroom.

Aside from our own learning, I think another important area to consider is how we evaluate students. If we always give the same assignments and the same type of test, we are foolish to think students aren't going to take advantage of that fact.

To K-12 teachers this probably sounds ridiculous; you cannot imagine any other way of doing things. But at the college level, it is fairly rare.

The key to pushing our skills, I think, is reflection. Unless we think about what we do in the classroom, we will never realize that maybe we need to do something differently.

So how do you keep yourself fresh? How do you vary what you do from year to year, semester to semester? I am interested in hearing and learning from you. I want to push my skills, and you can help me do it.

Update: Anne's post here seems to speak to this same issue. While she is talking about student reflection, there is a lot of food for thought for teachers as well. I am going to reread it and do some reflection of my own.

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