Compare and contrast: (1) students leaping out of their seats with blazing eyes and changing their lives in the movie “Dead Poets Society,” and (2) the bored, inward gazes or sleeping heads of students that many of us see in classrooms across the country.
These are two stereotyped extremes. But they each nonetheless represent familiar scenarios. So we, like many, are asking: what creates the difference?
Teaching can, of course, be a cult of personality. But we have to find and capitalize on so much more. We need to support and help more teachers attain excellence. And we need to find ways to educate more people. Increasingly, more people in this world need and want education than can be educated in current institutions, and we’ve got to get ahead of this trend.
What is needed to help more teachers succeed the way they want to?
Rather than find one solution and, like the proverbial hammer, presume it solves every problem, we thought we’d make an attempt to first learn the problems and understand their nuances. And now we want to share our results with you. We’re focusing on college-level teaching to begin with, but according to our preliminary interviews, many of the challenges are the same throughout many levels of education.
We interviewed 34 university and college teachers, representing a range of institutions and class sizes, spread across the sciences and humanities. We asked naïve questions like:
- What do you find most frustrating about teaching your classes?
- How do you define success for your class and for your students?
- If you had a magic wand, what would you change?
Some of the comments we received in interviews were particularly potent. One professor said,
“If I had infinite resources I would have someone who would pay students to talk about their experience.”
Right now he only has his gut feeling to tell him what students understand and what they do not. He would like better ways of getting this understanding — simply being in the same room with students is not enough. There has to be a way to foster and enable safe, directed, regular communication between professor and student, and ways to do that at scale.
Along with the in-person interviews, we posted the same questions on social media and collected responses from there. People shared with us 150 different challenges and provided us with over 250 pages of interview notes. Our next steps were:
- Write each challenge on a separate Post-It note and stick them all on the wall (“Step 1”)
- Move the Post-Its to a whiteboard, where we grouped them by topic. Some of our initial topics were Too Little Time, Too Many Students, The Tyranny of Assessment, The World of Facts (requiring memorization of facts instyead of teaching processes, question-asking, or skills), and No Good Textbooks (“Step 2”)
- Make a list of the challenge topics, refining their wording, and making sure they represented the sentiments on the Post-Its in their group
- Group similar challenges and word more clearly, to produce our ultimate list of sixteen high-level challenges, shown in the photo “Step 4”
We tabulated the number of times each challenge was mentioned in any interview (the blue tallies in the photo “Step 4”), and the number of times the challenge was the first mentioned item in response to “If you had a magic wand, what would you change?” (the green tallies in the photo). The total tallies for each challenge was used to create a ranking.
The ranking of the sixteen challenges (slightly reworded) according to the interviewees is:
World of facts: There is too much content to cover, and students expect simple answers to all questions;
Running a good class takes a lot of time (not enough time for creation and reflection);
Students are unprepared for new expectations, and don’t think critically;
Large classes require me to teach to the average student, leaving the top and bottom underserved;
Textbooks are expensive, and it’s hard to find good resources;
Students are passive and disengaged;
Grading takes too much time / I hate grading;
Can’t tell where or why my students are struggling;
Students are obsessed with grades;
We are not rewarded for teaching, and we are not taught to teach;
Content is dictated by the department / the field / testing requirements;
Online discussions are awkward and the tech is often unmanageable;
Plagiarism and cheating;
Assessment doesn’t measure critical thinking or other things we care about, but it drives the curriculum;
Students have outside pressures that affect their class performance; and
Students don’t have basic study skills, or don’t study enough.
The top four challenges, according to our interviews, together say that teachers would like to teach less straight content and more inquiry or exploration learning, but that their students are unprepared for those open questions and process problems. The teachers would like more time to work on their classes, and they would like to find ways not to teach to the average, but to serve all students.
Our final goal in this exercise was to determine which challenges we, in Beagle Learning, would try to help solve today. We are working on making exploration learning easier to bring to the classroom; we’d like to have all students practice learning the way it happens in the real world, by following questions with partial answers and working our way in increments toward solutions. Because we have this mission and because we are working on software tools to make this kind of learning easier and more scalable, we need to choose the challenges that we think we can address within our team.
Three of the Beagle Learning co-founders, Turner, James, and Lindy, each examined the 16 challenges and used green and red Post-It tabs to indicate which challenges we personally wanted to address. At this point it became clear we wanted to discard four of the challenges (for example, issues of plagiarism and cheating) as outside our current focus on solutions. Our founders ranking is shown as “T-L-J ranking” in the table shown below.
As a final step, we hopped on our favorite video chat app, appear.in, with the whole Beagle Learning team, briefed them on our progress, and then all discussed and voted on a final priority ranking. This took about three hours. The team ranking is shown as “Team ranking” in the table.
The final twelve challenges are shown here in order of their cumulative ranking, with top three rankings among any subgroup shown in green and the bottom three in red. This led us to the decision to focus on solving the following...
Five challenges educators face:
- There is too much content to cover;
- I can’t tell where my students are struggling;
- Running a good class takes a lot of time;
- Students are passive and disengaged; and
- Opening a classroom to inquiry learning is challenging and sometimes frightening.
We are hard at work on these challenges, and we hope to offer solutions that are easy to implement in small steps. We’re working on methodologies in the classroom, and we expect our software’s beta version to be ready by June. And we’d like to invite you to join in: perhaps our compilation of challenges to university teaching might be helpful and inspiring to other solution-finders!