December 13, 2016

Forgive the over simplistic dualism of the title. Of course we can be, and almost always are (or should be), both teacher and learner at the same time. But, as a semester’s end approaches and a break is in sight, it’s time to consider how to spend that now vacant “teaching” time.

While other priorities will surely draw on your time, I advocate devoting at least some portion to a focus on being a learner - in a way that will inform your teaching. The point is not to have the explicit expectation that you will learn something that will be transitioned into your teaching either via adoption or adaptation immediately (although this can, and often will, happen). Instead, be fully present as a learner (including time to reflect and make meaning of the learning experience) as you consider how to best feed the intellectual appetite of your teaching soul.

Here are a few things to try:

  1. Attend a lecture on teaching and learning. It really doesn’t matter if it’s one you can attend in-person, or view virtually (live or recorded - see youtube). The point is that you identify a topic that looks interesting, a respected speaker (either in the field of education, or in a specific discipline with a focus on teaching in the discipline), and expose yourself to a new idea, new research, or new approach about teaching. Don’t hesitate to engage even if the focus is on an academic level other than college-level. Some incredible insights can be gathered from what we know about early childhood learning that should inform a great deal of college teaching.

  2. Read a scholarly article on teaching and learning. If you are not already aware, every discipline has some kind of discipline-specific journal focused on teaching (here’s a good list to get started searching). At the very least, prominent journals in the field will feature teaching-related articles. The Center for Teaching Learning distills much of the general literature for you via our Resources section, and other sites like Faculty Focus provide nice venues through which to get a sense of the recent scholarship on teaching and learning generally. But, your discipline is another helpful source of knowledge, insight, and inspiration.

  3. View a TED Talk. Time-strapped? Nothing to spare, but like the idea of being the learner for a moment? Online videos like TED Talks provide a library of very short video lecturettes on a range of topics - many of which are on teaching and education (Sir Ken Robinson’s are some of my personal favorites). Check out a quick Taylor Mali spoken poem. Whether it’s for 60 seconds, or 60 minutes, every moment as a learner is beneficial.

Beyond the opportunity to grow one’s teaching practice, being a purposeful learner in the ways discussed here also has the fortunate outcome of increased teaching awareness. Few experiences are more insightful, or bring more revelations, about teaching than putting oneself in the position of the student. You spend most teaching days inciting curiosity and inspiring new knowledge, and as a learner can relish in the same experience. There are many more ways to be a learner than listed here, but during this break, take some time to think about how you learn, what incites your curiosity and what drives your inspiration to teach.