The Problem with being an Expert

I’m not teaching a survey class this semester but I feel like I’m always thinking about the survey.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about the balance between content and analysis in all of my courses.  In particular, I’m thinking about how to do a better job of delivering content while helping my students practice analysis in the classroom.

On facebook a few weeks ago, someone shared this gem of an article:

I was reading along, nodding my head and feeling like I was totally on the right side of this article.  I think about active learning and facilitating discussion All. The. Time.  And then, this paragraph right here hit me like a ton of bricks:

When I worked with student teachers on developing effective lesson plans, one thing I always asked them to revise was the phrase “We will discuss.”… I was pretty sure that We will discuss actually meant the teacher would do most of the talking; He would throw out a couple of questions like “So what did you think about the video?” or “What was the theme of the story?” and a few students would respond, resulting in something that looked like a discussion, but was ultimately just a conversation between the teacher and a handful of extroverted students…

Guilty.  Sure, I have classes with activities and I often have students do group work with primary sources.  But, in a normal class my discussion can often be me batting ideas around with a few students.  And, the whole time I’m “discussing” I’m inwardly cringing at the time I’ve lost from getting in testable content.

As I read through the rest of the article my enthusiasm for the techniques was marred by my feeling that these techniques don’t really fix my problem.  And, I can’t imagine I’m alone.  No textbook covers exactly what I want my students to know in the order I want them to know it.  I find myself constantly saying, “I’ll just cover that myself” when I make my syllabus.  Or, I assign them articles, podcasts, or web articles to read that present a perspective or a case study, but that doesn’t give the context I want my students to have.

It is the inherent problem of being an expert in the classroom.  I’ve been trained to have a unique opinion on things but the classroom doesn’t have enough time for students to experience my expertness AND to learn things for themselves.  I don’t want to be a “sage on the stage” OR a “guide on the side.” If I’m going to be corny I want to be the “hostess with the mostest;” A teacher who interacts with her students and gives them an appealing array of ideas to taste test. I just am not sure I always do that.

I’ve tried giving reading quizzes over the textbook.  I’ve tried just not caring that they may not have read or understood everything (I was terrible at that.) I’ve tried so hard to just stick to the textbook I assign.  I just can’t seem to get a good balance between content and student-led analysis in my classes.

For example, last semester I did a fun interactive simulation of the panic of 1837 (based off the really excellent SHEAR panel on teaching capitalism) and many students mentioned that activity in my evaluations.  They enjoyed it and they thought they learned something.  In order to make the time for that simulation, however, I had to give up talking about almost all of Jackson’s other presidential actions.  So, I felt like my students learned less than in previous classes when I devoted more class time to content.  They read in the textbook about nullification and the Indian Removal Act, but I hadn’t helped them draw a connection between those three political actions.

In my ideal class, I would mix interactive lecture with another active learning technique.  And, some class sessions I achieve that mix.  But, in many classes I don’t reach that balance.  So, I ask, how do you balance content with student-driven analysis?

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