(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

We Are Nerds. So how do we reach our students?


It suddenly struck me, a couple of weeks after I finished my PhD, that I was a nerd. This should not have come as a surprise, since I have been a high achieving student throughout school and college, and loved learning in those contexts enough to pursue a master’s and PhD.

I cannot be too different from most academics. I assume we share some common characteristics: we love reading (we chose a career that requires so much of it, after all) though we might differ in how much we love to write. We are passionate about teaching or research, or if we are truly lucky, we are passionate about both (though whether we ever manage to find the best balance for our own personal fulfillment is another matter). Many of us (those who enjoy teaching) are probably not the typical nerd you see on TV. We are probably very social with good interpersonal and communication skills. But we are still, deep down inside, nerds. And the reason I want to point this out, is that this “nerdiness” can stand in our way when we try to “reach” our students, motivate them to learn what we ourselves are so passionate about. Because most of our students, I am predicting (going out on a limb here), are not nerds. They do not already love the subject matter we are teaching. They may not be interested in pursuing a PhD in it. At least not yet (ha!)

How often have I heard during faculty development workshops the odd faculty member who says “well, we must get our students used to doing so and so, because they need those skills for graduate school”. Well, hello! Most of our students are probably not planning to go to graduate school (I probably shout this out before anyone in the room has the chance to agree, so I am unsure how widespread this sentiment is). Yes, it is important to prepare students for graduate school in case they do eventually plan to go. This is our medium-term goal. But our immediate goal is to help them through THIS course that they are taking for whatever purpose they have for taking it.

Which gets me to my second point: do we teach the way we like to learn? I love noise and humor and group discussions and disagreements in my classes. It is how I like to learn, and it is how I like to teach. It is my comfort zone. However, I often need to remind myself that this is not necessarily the way all my students prefer to learn. Occasionally, I will stop my class for individual written reflection before doing a larger group discussion. Occasionally, I will do some more quiet pair work. Occasionally, I will recognize that (oops) not everyone is as comfortable with conflict in my classroom as I thought. And that (oops) sometimes students who deep down inside dissgree with me are not comfortable doing so in class, no matter what assurances I give them that this is something to be desired. It may be desirable to me, but it is not always desirable to them. Occasionally, I will discover that my own culture is slightly (or very?) different from my students’ culture, which reminds me of the importance of “culturally relevant pedagogy” (great pedagogical concept if your students are diverse or very different from yourself).

I really also like the idea of “differentiated engagement” proposed by Michael Feldstein, which proposes that we as teachers consider providing space for our students learn according to their motivations and learning preferences. It has elements of what is called a process-oriented approach to curriculum, where your focus is not on the “myth of the unified learning goal” and not on the product of learning, but rather, the focus is on the learner’s own engagement and the teacher’s judgment of how to use the learning moment to take these particular students’ learning further in this particular context. It puts the actual learning and engagement as the center of discussions about curriculum, rather than any arbitrarily pre-defined goals set by one person or a group of people separate from the individuals in the classroom and separate from its context. The idea of “differentiated engagement” also has elements of the notion of “differentiated instruction” which builds on the idea of addressing different learning preferences (usually about multiple intelligences specifically, but the concept extends to all sorts of learner differences). Feldstein’s concept, as I understood it, focuses on learner motivations and preferences for engagement, and though he begins talking about it with reference to MOOCs, I agree with him that it should be something all teachers think about when thinking about their courses.

I also love Sean Michael Morris’ statement as he discusses contemplative pedagogy (is that his own term?):

“one of the most important skills a teacher can possess is mindful attention, and a willingness to see where a class is really headed, and not stick so tenaciously to his plan that he misses the brilliance of collaboration possible with his students”

(quoted from his website).

I’ll stop here. I hope this blog post keeps reminding me that I may be different from my students, and, because of that, I need to be mindful of what engages them, how they want to learn, so that I can direct my energies and passions in ways that satisfy us all.

Do you have a story to tell about how you taught in ways outside your comfort zone in order to motivate your students or help them learn better? How do we do this while still staying true to our ourselves? I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.

But are we really nerds?


Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

8 thoughts on “We Are Nerds. So how do we reach our students?

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  3. There’s so much here. Very thought provoking. But what I take from your statement is that we can’t really teach unless we are willing to learn (in the process of teaching). I think the best teachers are the best learners. And attentiveness is crucial to that. I agree, we have to find ways of listening to our students. And that is very, very difficult.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Jon. Yes, it is quite difficult, isn’t it? I’d love for others to share their experience of trying, though, so we can all learn from that as well

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  6. I worked with apprentices I never really reached. It was either too much pressure to get the job done and I just gave up or fell out of the need to teach and asked, “how can we get this done?” Some weight would be released from our relationship. The imbalance of unnecessary authority? The over-conscious buzz of being in a “learning moment” that splits our attention? Allowing something to be done with only the doing of the doing as important defused the sense of the artificiality of a staged activity?

    People are separated by all sorts of differences and teaching falls into an almost impossible place of reaching everyone. Even teachers get to be who they are:-) (Sometimes).

    Will check out Feldstein and Morris.

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