On Techniques and Aspirations

It’s Friday evening and my patience is running short, so I’ll try to keep it brief.

Powerpoint and the like are tools, and the use to which tools are put is important in determining their worth in teaching. Tools can be abused, used to achieve great results but mostly are harnessed to achieve something around-about average. Techniques are also liable to achieve a wide range of outcomes depending on who is using them.  I see a lot of people dismissing particular techniques without any consideration, things like using personal voting systems (this is both tool and technique but half decent use requires changing a lecture to an extent greater than just switching from powerpoint to keynote, hence inclusion here), flipping lectures, or pre-lectures. I’ve got no problem with a considered dismissal of a technique. I know that personal voting systems don’t fit with my general way of teaching – I find it hard enough to get all the bits and pieces* I need for a class to the right room at the right time without worrying about a couple of bags of clickers. I also find them difficult in 1 hour sessions because of the hassle of counting them out and in, so I choose not to use them. I’ve dabbled with pre-lectures and am still somewhat ambivalent about them. And it turns out, after a rather interesting twitter conversation with Simon Lancaster, that I do in fact flip four lectures. Simon was seeking examples of the abuse of techniques such as flipping, I asked for a good definition and it struck me that I do so. For some daft reason I’d had it in my head that I could only flip with a lecture recording.  And a good question for lecture flipping types: how many times did you teach the class in a ‘conventional’ manner before flipping? I have a theory that you need to have outstanding knowledge of the topic and the level of delivery to really exploit flipping to an appropriate standard, and I think one way to gain that knowledge is by delivering it several times by other means.

Generally I try things on a small scale before launching head on in. A pilot study before committing significant resources to a task, always a good plan. But what about the other side of the equation: people who launch head long into the ‘latest big thing’ without real thought or consideration? I see/read/hear lots of things written by people who genuinely seem to believe that by calling their teaching ‘latest big technique’, that suddenly it will all fall into  place and just happen. It just isn’t the case. To make any new technique work in teaching, you have to work extremely hard and be extremely able to deal with emerging issues. While it is nice to aspire to better teaching, jumping on the latest bandwagon is not the way to achieve this. If you’re not a reflective, thoughtful and responsive teacher before you do big technique, it will not work because you don’t have the analytical faculty to trouble shoot and refine it. There are times when I am simply too busy to give a course the appropriate level of reflection and thought that a new technique would warrant and I leave it as a conventional course. I am fearful that to make changes half heartedly and without sufficient time, I would do more harm to the learning experience of my students than good. I will settle for good enough until such time as I find the time to make the course really sing.

Generally I aspire to use exciting and interesting techniques. I am limited by the quantity of time I can spend preparing my courses, and coming from an institution where teaching loads are higher than in other institutions, that’s a significant limiting factor**. What I will never aspire to, and what I would actively discourage, is for teachers at University to jump on the latest technique without good consideration of the appropriate issues. What works for one lecturer will not work for another one. I don’t understand people who just reuse someone else’s lecture notes, I don’t understand why people would just reuse a technique without real thought.

*Teaching bits and pieces: register, pen, my notes, memory key, tablet PC with power lead, microphone and dictaphone, spare batteries, board markers, tissues, mug of tea…

**about 50 lectures a year, plus workshops and labs…spectroscopy, multinuclear NMR, transition metal chemistry, homogeneous catalysis, inorganic reaction mechanisms, bioinorganic chemistry, p-block chemistry, polymeric drug delivery…what kind of chemist am I again?