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A New Way of Teaching

A New Way of Teaching

Is there a new way to inspire students to take more responsibility for their own educations?
[photo of Peter Taylor]Mathematics Professor Peter taylor, who
earned hs doctorate at Harvard, is cross-
appointed to boh the Biology Department and
the Faculty of Education

There are new teaching imperatives at Queen’s coming from professors, undergraduate chairs, deans and even from the Principal. Government underfunding seems to be the big factor, but for me an even more significant driver is the possibility that with the large classes, revised curricula and increased pressures we are moving dangerously away from the university as it ought to be, as a place for scholarship, innovation and imagination. My particular focus is on our large first-year courses.

Students have changed a lot from my time (the 60’s); they live in a more complex world, have different skills, increased anxieties and narrower expectations. Professors have changed too; they have increased pressures and wider priorities, though at Queen’s, almost without exception, they care a lot about the quality of their teaching.

But in some ways things have slipped. Somehow in our response to all the anxieties and expectations, not to mention the supermarket-like repackaging of resources to make them simpler to consume, I fear we have lost sight of the wonderful journey of learning and, well, of you, the alumni, of what our students really need to be when they leave us to join you in your incredible world.

In pondering all this, I have been led back to my early allegiance to Alfred North Whitehead’s Aims of Education. For me this is a timeless work, more relevant today perhaps than when it was written in 1929. In Whitehead’s three stages of learning, class time should be spent on stages one (Romance – lighting the fire) and three (Generalization – orchestrating knowledge already “learned”), leaving the second stage (Precision – mastering skills, struggling with problems, acquiring needed information) for the most part to the students.

As I announced at my MiniU session last May, I’m running a project this winter semester in two large courses – APSC 172 (Calculus for engineers) and MATH 111 (Linear Algebra for computing science majors). I have a great post-doctoral student working with me – Ami Mamolo, who has a PhD in Math Education from Simon Fraser U – and her job is to help design and monitor the program and assess its effectiveness. Briefly the four principles behind the project are:

Independent student learning. At the Principal’s December financial update to the campus community a student asked what students can do to help. My answer would be this: Take responsibility for your own learning. A number of my students already do that, but many don’t.

Peer teaching. This is much more than simply working together to solve problems. I want the students to lift their eyes to the level of the community as a whole and take some responsibility for each other’s learning. If there’s one university in Canada where this ought to work it’s Queen’s, with its academically strong students and legendary school spirit.

A simpler, leaner curriculum. It’s well accepted that most students don’t really need most of the “material” that’s in their 20 undergraduate courses, but in practice it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. The challenge is that it’s not so much about what to include and what not; rather, it’s a question of how you conceive and package the whole thing. In this process, my guides are beauty and structure, where both are about function as much as form.

A simpler, leaner, assessment system with more integrity. This is a tough one, and I’m still feeling my way into it. I want tests and exams to be more open, flexible and humane. I want to reduce the level of anxiety among students and their excessive preoccupation with marks, and do a better job of examining what I really want to measure.

Will it work? Will students tell me at year’s end that they want more time in lectures taking notes on what they need to know for the exam? Honestly, I’m not sure. I guess we’ll see. I’ll report the results of my pedagogical experiment in the next issue of the Review.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-1 cover]