Saturday, October 3, 2015

Be Bold: Tell the Truth

A fairly frequent comment I hear when I tell colleagues that I record and distribute my lectures to my students is, "Oh, I'd never do that - I don't want students to have recordings of any mistakes I make."

As a tenure-track professor, I suppose I'm pretty relaxed (more than I should be?) about making mistakes. I've been an honest person my entire life, which is probably much like the statistic that a majority of those polled report that they're above-average drivers. But, the origin of my fanaticism about telling the truth in the classroom is much more recent than my own origin. I was caught off guard in my first semester as a grad student when the professor (Dr. Mark Roth - I remember it clearly) told us that he believed in truth in teaching, and that, at the very least, if he ever lied to us, he'd tell us that he was lying. This was something I had never heard, nor ever expected to hear, a professor say. And therein lies the power.

It is important for students to know why we're the professor. On the first day of class, I always (now) tell my students why I'm the one standing at the front of the room. It is definitely not that it is because I am an expert in genetics - I have some expertise in particular aspects of genetics, yes, but I'm still learning. In fact, my credentials (a Ph.D.) suggest that I'm sufficiently accomplished at the art of learning that I should be able to lead others down the path of learning. In other words, I'm the mentor because I'm farther down the path of understanding the practice of genetics. This is critical to say, because it sets the stage for what should come next: admitting, openly and honestly, that you don't know everything about your discipline.

This facilitates (at least) three critical aspects of learning:

  1. It provides the opportunity to model how to learn new things (or to change one's mind)
  2. It helps establish an atmosphere where students might be less intimidated by the all-knowing professor
  3. It makes it much easier to make the point (which I regularly do in biology courses) that there is not usually one correct answer. Even in the sciences, there are nuances and exceptions to rules, and one can only very rarely (if ever) make statements as "this is always, in every case, how this works."

Today, I'll focus on the first, as it pertains to having one's mistakes recorded and posted online. Now, why is verbal deceit (lying) an issue in the academic classroom? The painter Pablo Picasso had it nailed: "You mustn’t always believe what I say. Questions tempt you to tell lies, particularly when there is no answer." Now, I teach in a Socrative fashion (my father, Bob Ross - no, not the painter - put me on to a goal of mine, to somebody teach my classes by only asking questions). And I strongly encourage my students to think creatively and to practice science by being inquisitive and skeptical. So, I'm routinely barraged with excellent and relevant questions in class; I rarely know the answers. Being the holder of a doctoral degree and the instructor of the course, sometimes I'm tempted to tell half-truths so that we can move on with the orders of the day and not be sidetracked.  And there's some inherent pressure to maintain alpha status in the classroom and maintain control by always knowing the answer. But we're (students AND faculty) all adults, and we deserve the truth. So, when I'm asked a question I don't know the answer to, one of two things will happen:

  1. I say that I don't know, I give (and justify) my best guess, and I tell the student I'll look into the answer and report back to the class (and I actually do so, because telling the truth about not knowing the answer, and then lying about looking into it, really isn't good practice)
  2. I demonstrate, then and there, how I would find an answer (rather than the first approach, where my learning takes places in secret, behind closed doors)
I prefer the second approach, especially because it is the approach preferred in a blended learning setting.

So, what does this have to do with tablet pedagogy? As I said, all of my lectures are recorded and posted online almost as soon as we leave the classroom. I mentioned in an earlier post this semester that I'm also (now) regularly reviewing the videos to produces Tables of Contents to accompany the videos on YouTube. And that process of regularly reviewing my lectures means that I occasionally discover that I make mistakes during class.

How to correct mistakes that have been distributed online

Here's the three-step plan:

  1. Post an immediate correction to your students (on your Learning Management System, via e-mail, however you like). If a student notified me of the error, I definitely mention that one of the students from class caught the error.
  2. Add a similar comment on your lecture video webpage. Don't take down the video - you have nothing to hide other than not being perfect.
  3. Mention this again at the start of the next class, solicit questions, apologize for any confusion your error might have added, and (most importantly of all): seize the teaching moment, if you have figured out how to explain how you went astray and what the correct approach/answer/strategy/etc. is - and why.

What happens next? Some combination of the following:

  1. Students respect that you tell the truth and realize that you're just human
  2. Students lose trust in your content knowledge
  3. Students have observed an expert modeling how one's mind can be changed (thanks José Bowen for pointing out this important need) and how to respond to criticism
  4. Students become horribly confused about whether the first polar body divides during oogenesis, and forever after will have no idea whether three or four haploid cells are produced (as a random example…of course…)
  5. Students learn that you respect them and care about the quality of their education

Hopefully, if you rank the relative importance of those five possibilities, the likelihood of doing good by telling the truth in the classroom vastly outweighs potential costs. Although in the back of my mind, I'm sure I'll always be wishing I had produced more students who really deeply truly appreciated mastering #4, it certainly doesn't keep me up at night like it would if I hadn't taken the opportunity to #3 and #5.

So, keep recording and posting those lectures without trepidation, review them regularly, and own up to any errors. Model being a lifelong learner and a decent and bold human being: how to identify mistakes and how to properly address them.

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