In a recent blog post I told the story of a professor of mine at Haverford College, Sid Perloe, who inspired me by being very respectful of me and my very naïve questions. The best comment I received from that post (alright, the only comment I received) was a very thought-provoking one from Eric Harrison—another Haverford alum—who wrote in part:
"At a big university it's likely you'd have had that class with a grad student who not only wouldn't have taken the time to explain the idea the way Sid did, but probably wouldn't have known a whole more than you did about it."
It seems intuitive that graduate students wouldn't know as much as professors. But I'm not as sure that I'd bet on the proposition that graduate students and professors would differ that much in taking "the time to explain," or in their attitudes toward students and towards teaching. This got me thinking about what makes professors competent to teach. What factors are involved?
Competence is a fundamental and ubiquitous ethical principle in the professions. Nobody disputes the idea that professionals of any kind should be competent. Every code of ethics exhorts us to be competent, but they do not tell us what competence is. Think about your own college career: Which professors did you consider good (competent), and why? Was it folks who gave you the easy A? In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones seemed to be good—in the eyes and the eyelids of his students—just by being handsome. Lots of current students may look at factors like easy grading and good looks, but former students, with the perspective of time (and who actually have to earn a living), often talk about other factors, like expertise and inspiration. What have you come up with?
Recently I saw a presentation by David Thomas of the University of Colorado Denver, who talked about applying video games in teaching. He said that games have three components: the subject matter or content of the game, the mechanics (rules, etc.), and the "dynamics," kind of what it feels like to play the game.
Let's adapt this demarcation to teaching itself. The Content component means that professors should be up on the topics (e.g., neuropsychology) and skills (communication, critical thinking) they're teaching. Here students may say that good teachers "know their stuff." The Mechanics component means pedagogical skills (e.g., ability to communicate knowledge, use of technology). Students may say that a professor "has a way with words" or "gets me involved even when I'm tired."
Finally, Dynamics refers to the atmosphere of the classroom, including the willingness of students to take risks and how students interact with each other. Students may say that good professors create a safe, fun, and inspirational climate. Dynamics includes issues of engagement which is currently a big buzz word. But the concept of engagement really has some substance; I know because I've published about engagement....
There's no formula for how high professors need to be on each of these dimensions, or whether being high on one means they can be low on another and still be competent. For example, we've all heard: "That professor really knows his stuff—but no one can understand a thing he says!" Of course, some professors are better for some learners. I'm not a big fan a learning styles, because I think students should develop all their ways of learning. But it is the case that some students react better to some professors—at least for a while.
Traditionally, it was the first component—knowledge—that was the primary or only way competence was thought of in higher education. Professors had knowledge that students didn't. Now, however, it could be argued that knowledge is the least important component, because so much knowledge is available in so many formats. It could be that in the future the best (paid?) professors will be those who can teach thinking and interpersonal skills—because students can't look them up on the web!
Sid Perloe, in my experience, has the full package—amazing knowledge, a wonderful attitude, and an effective teaching style. But that doesn't do you any good, right? So let's take a look at more familiar folks who might exemplify different combinations of competene: the faculty of Hogwarts. You can disagree with my assessments—after all, they're fictional, aren't they?—but it'll give you flavor of what we're talking about.
Professor Lupin, I think, has it all. Good knowledge of the dark arts, an active teaching style, and very good classroom dynamics. Professor Snape has excellent command of potions and also uses a lot of active learning techniques. His classroom dynamics, however, leave something to be desired. And it gets worse from here: Hagrid has some good dynamics, but doesn't seem to know how to teach and may not know as much as he needs to about magical creatures. Professor Trelawney may have some active learning techniques, but doesn't to know much (at least for most of the books) and doesn't create a wonderful learning
environment. And finally we have the bottom of the barrel regarding competence: Professor Gilderoy Lockhart knew nothing, couldn't teach, and inspired approximately zero engagement!
By the way, I consider Indiana Jones as excellent on content, just passable on dynamics (only because of this looks), and really low on mechanics. After all, it's clear that he only lectures in class and that his mind is always elsewhere! He even sneaks out of his office to avoid seeing students or grading papers. This becomes unethical. In future posts I will argue for the notion of ethical competence, which includes such factors as:
1. Respect for students
2. Justice - treating students fairly
3. Prudence & Humility, which essentially say that ethical professors don't profess to know everything
4. Do No Harm. (Of course, this doesn't mean not giving tests....)
Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).