How Should We Teach?

How should we teach our undergraduate students? As we seek answers to that question, it is instructive to think back on our own experiences in the university years. What do you remember about your university education? That is, what real memories come to mind from those days? Before you read on, think for a moment about that question.

Here are some of my own memories, from the University of North Carolina (USA), in the 1960’s. They are arranged from most to least vivid:

  1. Earnest conversations with classmates. These were tied for first place with good books we read.
  2. Out of class activities, especially those that took us off campus out into the community—such as tutoring children in a local public school.
  3. Political and social movements we were part of.
  4. Traveling with other students.
  5. Research projects we did (These would have had much more impact, but we didn’t do very many of them).
  6. Earnest conversations with professors (Those we had left vivid impressions, but there weren’t many of them).
  7. Lectures. Most of these left not a trace, although highlights of a few of them are still remembered.

    How did your list compare?

Now think about this: In the year 2020, when someone asks your students about a course you are teaching, what will they remember?

I won’t tell you my answer, but I worry about it once a week at least!

It is also worthwhile to ask how much we use, in our daily work, of what we learned as undergraduates. Here comes another question, then: Thinking back over your professional activities this week, how much did you find yourself drawing upon what you learned in university, and how much on what you have learned since you left school? Think on that one for a moment.

My own answer includes some orienting facts about the world--some history, some literature, and some science. But much of the information was incomplete to start with and most of it is outdated now. Besides, these days I worry about education in Central Europe and Central Asia, in Latin America, and in East Africa, and my undergraduate education said little about those issues or even those parts of the world. Our university education did give my classmates and me a deep respect for learning, and a conviction that we should try to fully understand whatever we are dealing with. But the knowledge we use has changed dramatically through the years, and keeps on changing.

Our answers to these questions should show us that as instructors, we should promote a respect for learning—but learning as an activity, that is related to problems in the world, and not as something to be accumulated. We should be concerned with learning both as a verb and as a noun. When we are teaching, we are facilitating a process of learning and growth that will continue well beyond our lecture halls.

Charles Temple, Ph.D.