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.

Book Review: Saundra Yancy McGuire, Teach Students How to Learn

By Timothy CochranTeach Students How to Learn

As the title suggests Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (Sterling: Stylus, 2015) is filled with tools for helping students become aware of the “learning process” (2). To increase competency, confidence, and a desire to learn, McGuire offers a menu of techniques that are exceptionally simple, practical, and direct, which she invites us to make explicit in the classroom. For example, she suggests:

● Teaching students to become conscious of their “level of learning” on Bloom’s taxonomy (37).

● Teaching students to recognize the “difference between studying and learning” (31) and to grow in knowledge by not only completing homework and taking notes but also by attempting to teach course material to peers (or, if that produces anxiety, to a stuffed animal) (33, 55).

● Teaching students explicitly how to develop a “study cycle” of previewing a text (i.e., orienting oneself in the text by briefly looking over subheadings, bolded words, first sentences, etc. (46)) before reading, going to class, reviewing notes immediately, completing short review sessions each day, then reflecting on the effectiveness of these learning techniques and identifying needs (39).

● Teaching students how to adopt a “growth mindset” rather than assuming that “intelligence is static” (62).

Although the book can be repetitive and self-congratulatory in tone and the examples come primarily from the sciences, many of the principles can be adapted to a range of circumstances without requiring an entire shift in pedagogical philosophy. I have not adopted McGuire’s method as a whole, but I have tried a number of her approaches including asking students in Music History II last spring to articulate the distinction between studying and learning (31) and to commit to trying out two approaches during the term (see p. 132); I collated and distributed the anonymous answers for reinforcement. Aspects of the study cycle have been highlighted in my classes from time to time as well.

I came to McGuire’s volume through the Pedagogy Book Club at my institution (Eastern Connecticut State University). This group, founded two years ago, brings together new and continuing faculty who all read a book prior to the beginning of a semester and then gather for discussion.

Although I have found reading books like this about pedagogy to be useful, the book club itself has been the most valuable part of the experience. My discussion table for McGuire’s book featured a wide range of responses, from those who saw it as salvation for helping students succeed in traditionally difficult courses (mostly in the sciences) to those who questioned the book’s cure-all presentation and frequent recourse to test scores in success stories as markers of deep learning. It occurs to me that a pedagogy book club is not really about the book so much as the chance to wrestle with ideas and the tensions they create within our pedagogies in a community of diverse perspectives on teaching and learning. We need these kinds of interdisciplinary forums to help us become aware of, evaluate, and expand the tools in our music-pedagogical toolboxes.