Who needs technique?

By José Antonio Bowen

As musicians, we all understand that some technique is essential. Yes, we are ultimately bored by someone who is only fingers, but the best musicians combine something to say with an ability to say it. The same is true of teaching.

Our content knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. We need teaching techniques to be able to present our material in the ways that the most help students learn. Teaching and pedagogy are design problems: what situations, sequences and ultimately techniques will most motivate students to do the work that only they can do? Think of learning like fitness: only the person who does the work gets the benefit. Watching someone do exercise (even intellectual exercise) provides fairly little benefit. Teaching techniques allow us to design better learning environments, activities, classrooms, assignments and assessments.

There are lots of books full of techniques (including my own), but Claire Howell Major and Elizabeth F. Barkley (author of Student Engagement Techniques (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2010) have combined to write a series of excellent ones including Interactive Lecturing (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2018), Learning Assessment Techniques (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2016), Collaborative Learning Techniques (also with K. Patricia Cross, Wiley/Jossey-Bass, Second Edition, 2014).

Major is a professor of Higher Education at the University of Alabama and has a long and distinguished history of teaching and research in pedagogy and faculty development. Barkley is a Professor of Music History at Foothill College, in Los Altos, California who was named California’s Higher Education Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in addition to earning many national teaching honors. Together, they see techniques as the merger of pedagogical research and practical experience. While faculty should have a basic understanding of what we are trying to do biologically and physically to the brains of our students, none of us has the time to invest in also becoming deeply immersed in the most cutting-edge research in the science of learning. (For example, in the last decade pedagogical research has facilitated both an explosion of research and a convergence of the neurobiology and psychology work (think fMRI scans) and the practical experimental classroom data.)

In their publications Barkley and Major have distilled this vast research into a set of reliable teaching tools, and recently they launched the free K. Patricia Cross Academy online. Named for one of the most important early researchers and advocates for higher education pedagogy and former Harvard and Berkeley professor, the Cross Academy is an entirely free online library of teaching tools and techniques.

The heart of the site is 30 very short videos (2–3 minutes) of either Barkley or Major describing one of their techniques. You can sort this library by activity type (so you are looking for ideas about group work or discussion), the teaching problem addressed (cheating or lack of participation, for example), or the level of learning (according to the various taxonomies of learning). Each video has clear step by step instructions, and for those of us who still like text, you can download the same content in a written summary, often with extra material.

Barkley and Major think of techniques as recipes: they expect you will want to customize your approach for your particular students, situation and content, but they have summarized the research, outlined the steps, and given concrete guidance for how to assemble your next class session using this technique.

Think of these strategies as pedagogical snacks. In a few minutes you can not only be stimulated to try something new, solve a problem or get fresh ideas for your teaching, you can also get enough structure and understanding to implement something new today. The K. Patricia Cross Academy is an invaluable resource for all faculty, at whatever stage of teaching you are. Visit now.