Teachers Needed in Seoul, South Korea

This week, the Center for Great Commission Studies advertised a call for three teachers and a chaplain in an international school in Seoul, South Korea. Here is a portion of the advert:

I am writing to you now with a request…We need strong education-minded missionaries here in Seoul…specifically an Elementary School Chaplain, an ES Physical Education teacher, an ES Reading Specialist, and an Education Technology Specialist for the coming 15-16 school year.

If you are interested in going, read the full post here.


Briefly Noted: An Outrageous Idea for Universities & Seminaries

Just asking. If an institution of higher education were to offer Ph.D. programs (which prepare future professors), do you think it would include some readings and seat time addressing the topic of, ahem, how to be a good teacher? This is the question Derek Bok asks in his fine little article, “We Must Prepare Ph.D. Students for the Complicated Art of Teaching,” in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.[1]

Bok, the former president of Harvard University, answers in the affirmative: Ph.D. students must be taught how to teach—rather than merely being taught how to research and write—during the course of their PhD studies. He notes that although American universities are internationally renowned for producing top scholars, researchers, and entrepreneurs, they are not producing good pedagogues. “The most glaring defect of our graduate programs,” he writes, “is how little they do to prepare their students to teach.” And despite a few recent improvements––like centers that help students learn how to be teaching assistants––little motivation exists among the guild for changing this trend.

Bok observes that faculty and administrators have been unwilling to make changes. Many of them think that teaching is an un-teachable skill, “an art that one acquires naturally and improves through practice over time.” For Bok this goes against the grain of both common sense and recent scientific research. “Much has now been discovered about cognition, motivation, and the relative effectiveness of different methods of instruction.” Recent work has also shown that college students “are not making as much progress as most people have assumed in mastering skills such as writing and critical thinking.” Bok argues that all professors, especially new ones, will need to make use of this body of knowledge to become more effective in teaching.

Further accentuating the need for pedagogical training is the growth of online course offerings. MOOCs, hybrids, chats, and so on have impacted the way students seek to learn. Bok rightly notes that graduate students need to be trained in the rights and wrongs, uses and abuses, of these delivery models. He states, “Technology changes the nature of teaching in several ways. Developing an online course is a collaborative venture in which instructors work with technicians and media experts. Teaching, then, becomes less intuitive and more of a collective, deliberative activity.” All this growth and change has made “pedagogy . . . a much more complicated process . . . requiring formal preparation.”

Three lines of argumentation inform the remainder of Bok’s article. First, he notes that most Ph.D. graduates (about three-quarters of all Ph.D.’s) do not get jobs in research universities. This means most Ph.D. graduates who work in academia are required to do so at smaller, teaching-based institutions. Many of these institutions enroll students who may or may not be prepared to learn at the undergraduate level. Thus, future Ph.D. graduates will be required to teach, and teach well, students who require more teaching. Second, Bok claims students increasingly “multi-task” by tweeting, posting to Facebook, texting, and playing games whilst sitting in their classes. Future Ph.D. graduates must know how to engage such students in the learning process. Third, because of the lack of training professors themselves have in teaching instruction, “provosts and deans will have to take the initiative.”

Bok recognizes the conundrums that arise from these factors. “It is not entirely obvious just when and where the necessary instruction should take place.” Existing graduate program curricula do not make a good place, Bok claims. New curricula must be created: “ . . . to prepare their professors properly, colleges may need to give them a course that includes material dealing not only with pedagogy but also with ethical problems in teaching and research, the history of higher education, the principal schools of thought on the undergraduate curriculum, and the organization, financing, and governance of universities.” This sort of change will help current and future professors meet the needs presented by this generation of students.

I am entirely in agreement with Bok’s article. PhD programs tend to focus exclusively on research and writing and do so for multiple reasons: contentment with maintaining the received traditional PhD curriculum, personal preference for scholarship over classroom instruction, and personal pedagogical deficiencies stemming from having never studied pedagogy in their own PhD programs. We owe it to our PhD students to give them a toolbox which is not bereft of the pedagogical tools necessary for their future vocations as classroom instructors.

[1] Derek Bok, “We Must Prepare Ph.D. Students for the Complicated Art of Teaching,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov 15, 2013): A36–37.

Briefly Noted: Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results

Well now. Here is a politically incorrect take on pedagogy. In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Joanne Lipman argues that there are more than a few clues that tough teachers get better results than softies.[1] She begins by reminiscing about her high school music teacher who, apparently, was one arduous abecedary. “He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.” She notes—accurately, in the opinion of your scribe—that today he would be fired. “But when he died a few years ago he was celebrated.” Forty years worth of former students came to his funeral. Not all music pros, but all appreciative because Mr. K had made them work hard and in so doing made them believe they could achieve what they worked at.

In deference to Mr. K, Lipman argues, “It’s time to revive old-fashioned education. Not just traditional but old-fashioned in the sense that so many of us knew as kids, with strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here’s the thing: it works.” And again, “The conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads. . . . But the conventional wisdom is wrong.” Toward the end of resurrecting Mr. K’s style of stern and stringent pedagogy, Lipman offers eight clues to highly effective teaching. I note the eight clues, while offering a comment here and there.

1. A little pain is good for you.

Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers made famous the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, that about 10,000 hours of practice makes one an expert. This seems true enough. Limpan argues though for another point from the same study: “True expertise requires teachers who give ‘constructive, even painful feedback.’” Dr. Ericsson’s study found this to work out in violin performers, surgeons, computer programmers and chess players.

Lipman makes a good point, but not all painful feedback is constructive. One thinks of Roger Ebert’s movie reviews. Take, for example, his review of Transformers: A Revenge for the Fallen: “A horrible experience of unbearable length…. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination…. Those who think Transformers is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved.” Ebert’s feedback was, one suspects, painful but not constructive. A teacher’s feedback might be painful but must always be constructive.

2. Drill, baby, drill.

Rote learning has been increasingly downplayed and even avoided in American education. Yet Lipman points out that students from India, for instance, who specialize in repetitive learning and memorization “ . . . are creaming their peers in the National Spelling Bee Championship.” American students meanwhile struggle with math problems because so few actually nail down the basics; few were made to memorize the multiplication tables.

I couldn’t agree more. E. D. Hirsch, Dorothy Sayers, and many others have argued that content comes before analysis and communication. One of the silliest moments of the pedagogical silly season which we know as the twentieth century is the ascent of various pedagogical paradigms which denigrate the value of content pedagogy, of received tradition, and of memorization.

3. Failure is an option.

“Kids who understand that failure is a necessary aspect of learning actually perform better.” Lipman cites a French study from 2011 that gave students an exam beyond their capability. The group that was told failing and trying again is part of the learning process consistently outperformed their peers.

Agreed. Young men and women who have not been forced to grapple with failure are uniquely poised to be thoroughly mistaken about the world of which they are a part. Life in this world is not an unbroken succession of victories. The sooner they learn that lesson, the sooner they are prepared to learn from their failures and rise above them. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

4. Strict is better than nice.

In 2005, Mary Poplin from Claremont Graduate University found that the 31 most effective teachers in a selection of the worst schools of Los Angeles had one thing in common: they were strict. “The researchers had assumed that the most effective teachers would lead students to knowledge through collaborative learning and discussion. Instead they found disciplinarians….” A fourth grader from one of these schools summarized Poplin’s research better than she ever could: “When I was in first grade and second grade and third grade, when I cried my teachers coddled me. When I got to Mrs. T’s room, she told me to suck it up and get to work. I think she’s right. I need to work harder.”

I’m not sure strict is always better than nice, but at least sometimes it is. The single best teacher I’ve ever encountered was Milton Conrad Jordan, a professor of journalism and professional writing (teaching at Campbell University at the time) who never once to my memory was satisfied with my writing. He articulated clearly and regularly the manifold ways in which I was a boring and ineffective writer, and then showed me how to improve.

5. Creativity can be learned.

Temple University psychology prof Robert Weisberg’s research suggests that traditional education does not stifle a child’s creativity. After studying geniuses such as Edison and Picasso, Weisberg concluded that “ . . . there is no such thing as a born genius. Most creative giants work ferociously hard . . . .” Weisberg told Lipman, “You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline. It is built on a foundation of learning the discipline, which is what your music teacher was requiring of you.”

Weisberg and Lipman are right. In my own chosen discipline, theology, the most constructively creative theologians are those who operated firmly within a received (orthodox) theological framework. Perhaps Augustine is an exemplar here. He is the only theologian or philosopher to have invented two genres—the theology of history represented by City of God and the philosophical autobiography represented by Confessions—and he is a theologian who operated firmly within a theological and philosophical tradition.

6. Grit trumps talent.

University of Penn professor Angela Duckworth has recently developed a “Grit Scale” based upon several years of research. She studied over 2,800 subjects at Ivy League schools, the U. S. Military Academy, and in spelling bees. She found that “grit––defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals––is the best predictor of success.” Her “Grit Scale” did a better job at predicting those who would remain at West Point than West Point’s own measure––an index of SAT scores, class rank, leadership and physical aptitude. Thus, grit trumps talent.

Yes. In the realm of Ph.D. students, I’ll take one who is scrappy and determined over one who is analytically superior but not as gritty or determined. Any day.

7. Praise makes you weak . . .

Lipman’s old music teacher seldom praised her or other students. A Stanford psychology prof, Carol Dweck, found that kids who were told they were “hard workers” became more confident and performed better in school than those who were told they were smart. Dweck states that those “smart” students began measuring their identity by performance. “If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.” It seems that Mr. K was on to something.

Agreed. Although it is fine to let students know if they are talented, it is far better to compliment them on what they are doing with their talents.

8. . . . while stress makes you strong.

Lipman cites here the most extreme study of any so far. A psychology professor at the University of Buffalo studied 37 students, some who had recently experienced a stressful or significantly negative life event, e.g., serious family illness, and others who had not. “Then he plunged their hands into ice water. The students who had experienced a moderate number of stressful events actually felt less pain than those who had experienced no stress at all.” Stress builds perseverance.

Agreed. That which does not kill us can make us stronger.

Lipman notes that any of these principles taken individually doesn’t mean much, and some could be applied in a mean-spirited or otherwise-errant manner. But “collectively they convey something very different: confidence.” Students who are challenged often grow up to meet the challenge. Good teachers present a challenge and then help all students grow into the type of person who can meet life’s challenges.

[1] Joanne Lipman, “Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results” in Wall Street Journal online (Sep 27, 2013).

online game