Friday, May 16, 2014

Pseudoteaching, pseudoengagement, and the dangers of equating teaching with performing

One of the best books I've read in the last 10 years was written by Dan Coyle, whose blog is also one of mymost recent post, Coyle discusses the concept of pseudoteaching, which I would define as high-energy and quite often entertaining teaching that looks impressive, but that leads to very little learning for students.  Coyle links to a great post from +Frank Noschese that explores the concept in more depth and provides two contrasting cases that further illustrate the difference between pseudoteaching and "real teaching."  If you have six minutes, watch them both below.
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#1 -- Pseudoteaching Example
Pay attention to

  • How animated the teacher is
  • How entertaining he is
  • How much students seem to be enjoying the demonstrations
  • Who is doing the talking

#2 -- "Real Teaching" Example
Pay attention to

  • Who is doing the talking
  • Differences in the looks on students faces (as compared to the pseudoteaching example)
  • What the teacher is doing

See the differences?

The typical narrative of "good teaching," (especially in popular media) is nearly always aligned with what you see from Walter Lewin, the physics teacher in the first clip.  It's characterized by energy, excitement, smiling and laughing students, and a teacher with a big personality.  This is the cover story of good teaching that Hollywood, booksellers, and the general public likes to believe.  But, there is a more subtle narrative beneath this type of teaching.  Look again at the physics teacher and the way he views his role.  He proudly boasts of "rehearsing" each of his lectures to empty classrooms, two to three times before teaching them.  Consider what this means.  His role is to "perform" and this performance is the same regardless of whether he's "teaching" an empty lecture hall or one full of laughing students.  

Now, in contrast, consider the example from Cary Academy.  First, the teacher is noticeably absent from the clip, except for when he's being interviewed.  Instead of being focused on what the teacher is doing, this classroom is all about what the students are doing, which is engaging with challenging, real-world problems.  The news clip suggests that students are engaging in demonstrations and experiments, but the key difference here is that the students themselves are engaging in those activities (rather than watching a "performer" conduct them at the front of the classroom).  Even more telling is Dr. Matt Greenwolfe's description of his role which is to "create experiences for the students."  Rather than rehearsing what he'll be saying and doing (like Lewin from the prior clip), Greenwolfe spends his time planning experiences that his students can have themselves.  It's much less flashy (and so is Greenwolfe), but engages students as active participants in their learning, rather than passive observers.

This gets at another misunderstood term from the educational landscape--engagement.  Just as pseudoteaching is often confused with "real teaching," its companion pitfall is pseudoengagement.  The average citizen (meaning, someone with no formal training or background in education) sees the MIT physics clip and mistakenly assumes that students in those large lecture halls are engaged.  After all, they are smiling, laughing, and paying attention to the teacher.  In short, they're being entertained.  But engagement is not entertainment.  

Surprisingly, "real" engagement looks very different than the students we see in the MIT case.  If you really want to see it, watch the Cary Academy clip again and pay attention to the looks on the students faces.  No smiles, no laughter, no real indication that they're even enjoying themselves.  Instead, there is a look of concentration, focus, and even struggle or frustration.  And, that's what the best kind of engagement looks like.  Instead of looking like they're watching a movie (which Lewin's lectures might as well be taped performances), they look like they're at work, which is the whole point.  

Learning is work.  And, by extension, teaching involves providing environments and experiences that invite learners to engage in work.  In contrast, "performers" entertain and expect very little from their "audiences" other than laughs and applause.  Likewise, engagement is not entertainment (though it can be entertaining, but not in the same way watching a performance is).  

When we move from pseudoteaching to real teaching, and pseudoengagement to real engagement, not only do students have a more meaningful experience, but quantitative outcomes improve as well.  Case in point, Lewin's "entertaining" physics classes resulted in a drop in lecture attendance, as well as increased failure rates.  Greenwolfe's authentically engaging classes led to significant improvements in AP test performance.

For educators, our role is to help others understand these distinctions, which includes students, parents, other teachers, policy-makers, and legislators.  If we can't reframe the narrative on good teaching and real engagement, we're setting ourselves all up for failure.  Pseudoteaching and pseudoengagement are a little like educational pornography (which I've written about before here)--they serve as counterfeits to the real teaching and learning we hope happens in schools.  And, until we recognize and replace these counterfeits in conversations about education, we won't make much progress.

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