Saturday, March 19, 2011

Learning your teaching style

We write a lot about discovering student's learning and processing styles. But few of us spend a lot of time thinking about our teaching styles. We teach the way we were taught, the way that feels most comfortable to us, or the way we are told to teach by our employer. A handful of people change their teaching style based on what they learn at conferences. As ASPer's, we busy, and few of us have a lot of downtime to think about why we teach the way we teach and reflect on our teaching style.

I am using teaching style in the broadest possible way; all the things you do to prepare to teach and how you teach students. This is unique to every individual. Learning is a complex interplay between teachers, students, and students and peers. We all have preferences. We all need to understand our preferences to do our best to help students learn.

The one-on-one teacher: Whenever I go to a conference, I hear attendees talking that one-on-one is the best method for teaching students. It is assumed, not discussed. I have heard countless times "I could teach them anything, if I just had enough time to teach them one-on-one." No one seems to question the validity of the statement. One-on-one teaching is a teaching style, and one that does not work best for everyone. It is not true that everyone could teach anyone anything if they could just work with them one-on-one. It is a great method if it is your strength, but it is not everyone's strength. I  a lot of former practitioners prefer one-on-one's because it is how they worked with clients. My message to new teachers is that they should think before they assume this is the best way to reach all students. It's not the best way, it is a preference. Just as we would not assume there is a best learning or processing style for students, don't assume one-on-one's are the best teaching method because that is what you hear from colleagues.

The student-group leader-teacher: This is a common way of delivering ASP at many law schools. ASP professionals are expected to teach students to lead groups of students. There are some brilliant ASper's who use this method to great success; Joanne Koren at Miami and Mike Schwartz at Washburn immediately come to mind. However, there is no one master method for teaching student leaders to run student study groups. If you are an intuitive teacher, teaching students to teach students is difficult. Intuitive teachers are ones whose teaching reflects the needs and the makeup of the class. It is a more spontaneous, reactive way to teach, although it requires as much, if not more, preparation. Intuitive teachers master the subject material so that they can change the direction of the class on the fly to reflect how the class is moving that day. If this is your teaching style, it is difficult to translate this method to student leaders. You cannot tell student leaders to master the subject material. Most intuitive teachers have significant classroom experience, and it is rare for a student leader to have the teaching experience to be intuitive with the students they are leading. Intuitive teachers can learn how other teachers teach student leaders, but it is not their preference. And there is nothing wrong with finding that is not the best way to reach students.

The classroom teacher: Not everyone is cut out to be a traditional classroom teacher. There are some magnificent, awe-inspiring classroom teachers in ASP and doctrinal teaching, such as Rory Badahur at Washburn or Paula Manning at Western State. If you don't prefer classroom teaching, it doesn't mean you aren't a good teacher. It means your preference may be one-on-one or leading student leaders. I find that there is a spectrum, at one end are pure classroom teachers, and at the other, pure one-on-one teachers. Most people are somewhere along that spectrum. The difference is in how the teachers use peer learning. Classroom teachers need to cede control of learning to the students to be successful. This is not something everyone is comfortable doing. You need to build trust between teacher (you) and the students, and trust between peers. This is a skill. It's much easier for student's to feel safe in a one-on-one than it is for a class to feel safe. Safety is critical to learning because students need to push boundaries in order to learn, to move outside of their comfort zone, and to risk being wrong.

Every teacher needs to do some of every type of teaching. However, everyone has preferences in how they work with students. My message to new teachers--there is not a right or wrong preference, no master method that is most successful with students. When a colleague, even a very respected colleague, tells you that they have found a method that works best with students, realize they have found their method that works best based on their teaching preferences. That method may not work best for you. You need to reflect on your skill set and your preferences. The method that is most likely to reach your students is the method that reflects your preferences and strengths.

I have a non-ASP colleague at the undergrad who is one of the most brilliant one-on-one teachers I have ever observed. However, this teacher dislikes classroom teaching, and finds it ineffectual at reaching students. This educator was reflective during the job search, and found a position that consists primarily of one-on-one instruction, with limited classroom time. I am fascinated by one-on-one methods because I greatly prefer classroom teaching, and find a full day of one-on-ones to be draining, and for many students, counter-productive. I find students understand much more from peer learning in a class than in a one-on-one. I find that students are better at translating their misunderstanding of material to each other than to me. My colleague and I both receive great evaluations reflective of our respective teaching preferences. Our student body overlaps, so we know that the evals are not reflecting student preferences (i.e., students who like one-on-ones going to the colleague, students who like classroom teaching to me), but our strengths.

My message to new teachers: reflect on your preferences and your strengths. Your students will learn best when you play to your strengths as a teacher. There is no one master method of reaching students. Just as we respect student learning and processing differences, respect teaching preferences. (RCF)

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