What I Learned At Faculty College

I just got back from a wonderful week of talking with other educators. Every year the University of Wisconsin System Office of Professional and Instructional Development (OPID) holds a four day faculty college where instructors from the UW system can get together and talk teaching. The program is part of the Wisconsin Teaching Scholars program, and is aimed at promoting the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).

Those of you not in academia may wonder what SoTL is, and it just so happens we spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with a definition.  It basically boils down to researching how best to teach your own students.  I like to think of it as getting to experiment on my students with the added benefit of getting a publication at the end.  The primary goal of SoTL is to advance the practice of teaching.  In other words, we find out what sort of things help students learn better.

So, what did I learn?  First, designing a SoTL project is hard, but the hardest part is, surprisingly, limiting the scope of your project.  Several of the faculty I talked to (including myself) had projects which would probably fill up a couple of PhD dissertations.  So the steps to coming up with your project is one of whittling down, and narrowing your focus, until you have something that is realistic and manageable.

The second thing I learned about what Perry’s model of intellectual development.  I try to relay my own (very) limited understanding of Perry’s model.  Students come to college with a simple, dualistic view of the world.  The dualist see things in terms of black-or-white, right-or-wrong, and believes that most problems can be solved by simplying following the word of the Authority.  The next stage is the multiplistic view,  students begin to see that there is no Authority, that there is significant uncertainty in all fields, and that other opinions have validity.  Unfortunately, students in this stage tend to believe that all opinions are equally valid, and aren’t able to understand that some opinions might be better than others.  Hopefully these students can advance to the next stage, which is relativism.  This is the belief that context matters, and that some opinions are better is some circumstances and that by using evidence, you can often choose a better choice from an array of options.  Only some students will make it to this stage, but most don’t make it to the next stage while in school.  The final stage is commitment in relativism.  In this stage, the student takes a stand and makes a commitment based on a logical evaluation of evidence.  In other words they can decide what appears to be true.

The reason this model struck me was I realized many of my students are still in the dualistic stage.  They see me as the Authority, and do not like trying to work things out on their own.  The feel that “teaching” means that I should be telling them what they need to know.  I think I was heartened to realize that this was part of a natural progression, and that these students might not be stuck in this black-or-white world.

Can you tell most of my writing lately has been academic papers?  This post feels very passive-voiced.  Oh well.  If my explanation above seems a bit muddled, it’s because I’m figuring things out for myself.  Incidently, “muddling” and “strategic confusion” where the key phrases for the week.  Any of you readers that are Wisconsin faculty, I strongly encourage you to attend Faculty College.

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