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Talk About Teaching And Learning

How Can I Help?

Dennis DeTurck

When faculty candidates prepare their dossiers for appointment or promotion, they often include statements of their teaching philosophy. These statements make interesting reading—it is quite striking to take note of the aspects of pedagogy that seem universal across the disciplines and across variations in classroom settings, as well as features that are discipline and setting-specific. For example, as different as the study of mathematics and the study of literature might seem, both require close reading and an elucidation of structure and context. These skills are difficult to learn, but acquiring both the skills and an appreciation of their value is crucial to learning these subjects, and a primary goal of both mathematics and English instructors is to equip their students with them. Of course, the precise methods used by instructors in different disciplines and in different classroom settings vary widely according to the task at hand—a freewheeling give-and-take might not be the best way for students to internalize the fundamental theorems of calculus, whereas the seminar format is very effective for learning about social issues or artistic works. On the other hand, spending class time observing students working individually or in small groups on problems can be valuable in a mathematics or science class, whereas it seems less advisable to have students writing in class in a literature course.

Whether soaring or prosaic, these teaching philosophy statements taken in toto carry an important message:  Whether we are new or experienced faculty members, it is useful to reflect on our approach to teaching our students every time we begin to teach a course. What pedagogy should we use? What readings should we assign? What are our goals for our students in the course? How will we know to what extent these goals have been achieved?

I believe that in the end, as with so many other endeavors, effective teaching begins with an exceedingly simple question: How can I help? On the one hand, this question is reminiscent of the questions Franklin claimed in his Autobiography to pose to himself at the beginning and end of every day: “What good shall I do this day?” and “What good have I done to-day?” On the other, its very simplicity renders it effective in a remarkable number and variety of situations.

In the context of teaching, the question “How can I help?” puts the focus precisely where it belongs: on the student. The question makes it clear that the teacher’s first task must be to assess the student’s state of mind as well as his or her readiness to cope with the subject matter at hand. The most brilliant elucidation of an Emily Dickinson poem or of a theorem of vector calculus will be ineffective if the student’s attention is distracted, or if he or she lacks the prerequisites to understand or is unaware of the appropriate context in which to appreciate it.

“How can I help?” (HCIH) can be an organizing principle for teaching both in the small and in the large. By careful listening and observation, an instructor often can discern where and why a student is having difficulties with a concept or technique, and can then bring an appropriate remedy to bear. Sometimes, the best remedy is simply to supply the missing fact or answer. More often, it is more effective to suggest a new way to approach the difficult concept or to correct a key misconception, so that the student can construct the rest of the argument or solution independently. In a larger setting, “helping” might happen by providing a carefully chosen and well-ordered set of questions or problems for discussion, which lead students to draw conclusions and, by themselves, model behavior and thinking that demonstrate the power and value of a more sophisticated way of looking at the world.

On a longer time scale, HCIH can provide focus for an entire course: Students who take our courses should learn new facts, formulas, and works of art and literature, but a more central goal we should keep in mind constantly is for students to develop new habits of mind, perspectives on the world, and abilities to cope with new challenges. We address this goal first by modeling the habits, perspectives and abilities we hope to engender, and then by providing meaningful opportunities for our students to put them into practice. These opportunities often take the form of classroom exercises, papers and discussions, but more and more, we give our students opportunities to pursue longer-term research projects, to put theory into practice in Academically-Based Community Service courses and in internship positions during the summer and the academic year.

Going further, the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences has been rethinking the “general education” side of its curriculum. In the process, we’ve engaged in collegial discussions about the purpose of education in the arts and sciences. In particular our goal has been to structure an undergraduate experience that prepares our graduates to be broadly educated people who will embark on a lifetime of learning, assume positions of leadership in their chosen careers, be independent, adaptable, creative thinkers, and become thoughtful, engaged citizens of their community, nation and world.

As the faculty worked to design the curricular framework that was approved last spring, the HCIH principle was often in evidence, particularly as we discussed the nature of general education courses (as opposed to specialized courses in a major). In keeping with the idea that “helping” must involve constant reevaluation of the teaching and learning experience, the new curricular framework mandates that the approval process for courses proposed to satisfy general education requirements include discussions of both the syllabus and pedagogy of the courses. Moreover, approved courses will be reviewed periodically to ensure that both their content and pedagogy remain consistent with the faculty’s notion of effective general education in the arts and sciences. The faculty also expressed its openness to the consideration of courses that employ innovative approaches—such as problem-based learning and courses that combine serious scholarship with community service or the creative arts. In every sector and for every course, the criteria used to make these judgments can be paraphrased as, “How does this course help students move closer to the goals of lifelong learning, leadership, independence, adaptability, creativity, and local and global citizenship?”

The last several paragraphs emphasize the “how” in HCIH, and admittedly seem pretty starry-eyed and idealistic. But the question “How can I help?” has a prerequisite question, namely “Can I help?” or even “Should I help?” Somewhat paradoxically, the most effective way to help students learn and progress is sometimes to allow them to confront difficulties and confusion on their own. Confusion, when not allowed to degenerate into frustration, can be a powerful motivator. The resolution of confusion, whether independent or aided, can be a source of pride for students. As the late Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, once remarked, “You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.” We have to provide opportunities for our students to experience this kind of learning as well, as it fosters independence.

In the end, as at the beginning, the principle of HCIH makes the student, rather than the subject material, the focus of attention. Of course, this is not a new idea, or even a profound one. It is simply an important guiding principle we should keep in mind as our students make their way through our courses and curricula.

Dennis DeTurck, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Evan C Thompson Professor for Excellence in Teaching, and Professor of Mathematics is a recipient of the Lindback Award and the Ira Abrams Award.

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 17, January 10, 2006


January 10, 2006
Volume 52 Number 17


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