Home»Teaching»It’s the 21st century, how do we teach?

In my own classrooms, I've begun the transition from how I was taught many odd years ago to trying to figure out what's effective with students today.

There was a very long piece, spread across two pages, in the Sunday New York Times where the headline and subhead captured the heart of the story: “Raising Their Sights: Community College Professors Struggle to Inspire Students Who Have Often Been Left Behind.”

The subject of the piece, Dr. Eduardo Vianna, a professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, faces a daunting task: of the full time students enrolled at LaGuardia, a two year school, in 2008 fewer than 17 percent graduated in three years; by six years only a quarter had, “a figure that is high for urban community colleges,” the article tells us.

I wonder, however, if the article also doesn’t betray what the writer, Gina Bellafante, experienced when – and where – she went to college. She opens the piece with a success story – that of a student of Vianna’s who starts off by never saying a word for an entire semester and ends up graduating from a four year college and is now in a doctoral program at the City University of New York.

Success for Bellafante may be a Ph.D., but holding a doctorate today can mean a life of scraping by, in many cases.

The young man should be congratulated, and he should be encouraged to follow what is clearly his passion, but the sad fact is that if he wants to teach after graduation, he’ll have to resign himself to being a part-time worker, given as much consideration as a glorified short-order cook by the institutions that employ him.

The article mentions that of LaGuardia’s 1200 faculty, only 400 are full time. The rest are adjuncts, part-timers, paid by the course. While many of the school’s 70 new hires are Ph.D.s, many of those adjuncts are probably Ph.D.s., for who success is defined by cobbling together – and daily commuting between – a string of teaching gigs at different schools, only to earn a fraction of what the full timers do.

I suspect that Bellafante – who is an excellent reporter and writer – also reveals educational values she learned, when she approvingly refers to the difficulty of the texts that Vianna uses in his classrooms. In one place, referring to work the Ph.D. student is doing with high school students, she writes, “One afternoon when I visited the group, the students were making their way, line by line, through an essay by the feminist political scientist Iris Marian Young, wrestling with the meaning of phenomenology.”

Without taking away from the marvelous work the Ph.D. candidate and the high schoolers are doing, I would never assign complex readings to my students. Vianna and I both teach freshman seminars, where I focus on neuroscience and what it tells us about learning. I may expose them to something technical, but not for long. I’d lose too many students if I did. They won’t accept that reading something they consider incomprehensible is good for them, and they certainly don’t believe any professor insisting that somehow it’s good for them. You might as well get them to add castor oil to their diet.

What I’ve found in my own college classrooms is a generation that has to be reached in different ways than were used to reach Bellafante and, many years ago, myself.

What I’ve found that often works is doing. I assign the freshmen to spend an hour studying while multitasking – which with students these days can mean roommates watching a movie, constant text messages from family, etc. Then they have to hie themselves to a library study room where they read without distractions for two more hour-long sessions. (Two more because I want them to be convinced of the results.) Invariably, they report in the subsequent paper that solo-tasking proved far more effective, and they usually say that they’ll continue to study that way.

I have no doubt they backslide on their promises, maybe a little and perhaps a lot, but it’s remarkable how many refer to this exercise in their end of the semester reflection papers and how much it showed them.

But why haven’t they been exposed to this simple exercise before? Is it because the teaching methods that Bellafante, Vianna and I were exposed to are the ones we think work and therefore continue to value and use?

This latest generation is distinct from all before them. They’re molded by a digital world in ways that most of our not. While I respect the techniques that Vianna uses and applaud the success of his formerly-silent student, I think the future of learning lies in figuring out what will work for this generation – not in simply continuing to do what worked for us.


Bellafante’s article is part of the series “Teaching How We Learn” and appeared Dec. 21, 2014.



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