What is pseudoteaching?
This term was inspired by Dan Meyer’s pseudocontext, which sought to find examples of textbook problems that on the surface seemed to be about real world problems and situations, but actually were about make believe contexts that had little connection to the real world, other than the photographs that framed the problems.
After reading many of Dan’s pseudocontext posts, John Burk and I had the idea of pseudoteaching [PT] which we have defined as:
Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.
We hope that though discussion, we’ll be able to clarify and refine this definition even further. The key idea of pseudoteaching is that it looks like good teaching. In class, students feel like they are learning, and any observer who saw a teacher in the middle of pseudoteaching would feel like he’s watching a great lesson. The only problem is, very little learning is taking place.
Take, for example, Walter Lewin’s amazing physics lectures at MIT, which are available online at MIT OpenCourseware [Mechanics | E&M].
Professor Lewin is full of energy. He clearly loves physics, and he also loves sharing it with his students. His demonstrations were thrillling. His board work was impeccable. Lewin worked hard to make it look effortless — he ran through each lecture 3 times before presenting it to students.
So what happened result as the semester progressed? Attendance at his physics lectures fell 40% by the end of the term and an average of 10% of students failed Mechanics and 14% failed E&M. Surprised?
If you look past his enthusiasm and his displays of physics awesomeness, Lewin was pseudoteaching. It looks like good teaching, but he was the one doing all the talking. It looks like the students are learning, but they were just sitting there watching. It’s like trying to learn to play piano or play a sport by watching your teacher or coach. It doesn’t work well.
Ironically, it was over 30 years before Lewin’s famous lectures that the great physicist Richard Feynman realized more interactive engagement is necessary. From page xxix of Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces (a “greatest-hits” of his lectures to freshman when he taught introductory physics at Cal Tech from 1961-1963):
I think, however, that there isn’t any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher—a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things. It’s impossible to learn very much by simply sitting in a lecture, or even by simply doing problems that are assigned. But in our modem times we have so many students to teach that we have to try to ﬁnd some substitute for the ideal. Perhaps my lectures can make some contribution. Perhaps in some small place where there are individual teachers and students, they may get some inspiration or some ideas from the lectures. Perhaps they will have fun thinking them through—or going on to develop some of the ideas further.
RICHARD P. FEYNMAN
So what did MIT do after Lewin’s show-stopping lectures failed to change declining attendance and large failure rates? They created interactive learning spaces like TEAL, which stands for Technology Enhanced Active Learning. From the New York Times article “At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard”:
Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.
Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.
For more information on TEAL, I suggest reading “Why TEAL Works” and “Lessons Learned from TEAL”.
But you don’t need a high-tech classroom filled with bright-and-shiny gadgets to do what M.I.T. did. A class set of $2 Interactive Whiteboards will do just fine.
I admit I was “doin’ the Lewin” my first years of teaching. I was up late each night, creating Powerpoints and crafting worksheets. All students had to do was follow along and fill in the blanks. Then I’d work a problem on the chalkboard and the students would finish the rest for homework. The next day, the whole cycle would repeat with a new topic. I planned lessons by answering the question “What am I going to do in class tomorrow?” Now, I plan lessons by answering the questions “What are my students going to do tomorrow? How will it help them progress towards our learning goals?”
Pseudoteaching was relatively easy. It fit nicely with The Hidden Contract that exists in the majority of classrooms. I still fall back lazily into pseudoteaching on occasion, especially when I feel pressed for time or when I sense student resistance to work. Real teaching provides struggles (large and small, for teachers and students) each day.
What’s your pseudoteaching story?
Head on over to my pseduoteaching page where you’ll curretly find links to other new pseudoteaching posts from John Burk, Dan Meyer, Rhett Allain, and Jerrid Kruse, which all went live today. (You can also access the pseudoteaching page from the menu in my blog header.)
We all hope pseudoteaching will become a valuable lens for critically examining our own teaching, and that the idea will spread to other teachers as well. We’d love for you to contribute your own examples of pseudoteaching. Just email me a link to your pseudoteaching post and I’ll add it. Thanks!