Teaching basics before teaching excellence

As a teaching center director, I spent much of my time thinking about how to help faculty improve and develop. It is exciting and rewarding work. When teaching my own classes, I can work to improve the learning experience of my students. In my faculty development role, I’m able to help many faculty teaching literally thousands of students. When working with faculty, we often stress innovation, experimentation, and technology. However, I’ve recently been reminded that we need to talk more about teaching basics before teaching excellence.

Photo credit: osseous

In my experience, most faculty want to be better teachers. They may not know how to improve or possess the skill set. They may feel that they don’t have time to devote to teaching. But they want to be better.

At the university level, many of the conversations that I sit in focus on the new and shiny. We want our faculty to use technology and use it more effectively. We want innovative teaching spaces that will spark creativity and innovation.

All of these things are important– critical even– to prepare students for life and work in a knowledge based economy.

Yet, I fear in our push for innovation and creativity that we’re missing a key foundational element.

Many of our faculty do not have the basic tools to support their work.

At institutions large and small, research or teaching focused, faculty lack the simple things to support a positive learning environment.  See if any of these sound familiar at your institution:

Dry erase markers don’t work well or are missing.

Classroom clock not functioning or missing.

Classroom doors that can’t be unlocked to let students in and out during class.

Heating or air conditioning not functioning properly.

Classroom computer trying to install updates in the middle of class.

I have had all of these happen to me repeatedly in my career. I bet everyone who teaches has faced these and many more problems that range from annoying to disruptive.

If someone can’t rely on dry erase markers working, are we surprised if they are less than willing to try the most recent pedagogical innovation? If you can’t trust the computer to not try to run updates during your PowerPoint, are you really going to try the latest teaching technology application.

Likewise, if every classroom is set up in a lecture style, can we fault faculty who lecture constantly?

These little things matter. They matter a lot.

We know what works in improving teaching and learning. The research base is quite robust now.

We also know how transformational some of the new creative teaching approaches can be especially in leveraging technology.

Yet, I worry we are missing a strong foundation.

Our institutions dedicate substantial resources to creating opportunities to use new and exciting ideas.

What about the older technology that just needs to be maintained? What about the basic items that faculty need to teach their classes.

We have to have teaching basics before teaching excellence.

I’m not going to stop pushing for new and innovative ideas. Today’s students need us to focus on these.

Yet, I’m also going to remind myself: What about the dry erase markers?