Constant evolution is critical
to excellent teaching

Teaching is perhaps the broadest and deepest form of scholarship. Excellent teachers make a difference in the lives of their students by making content come alive and by assisting students to take responsibility for their own learning, to connect the content of one discipline to other disciplines and to the "real world," in essence to become lifelong learners and problem-solvers.

Excellent teaching comes in many guises. From the distillation of a concept and its linkages to other ideas in the scintillating lecture that leaves each student hungering to explore, to the Socratic questioning that empowers deeper thought and analysis to the devil's advocacy that forces reconception of received wisdom, to the philosophical discussions over coffee that humanize and extend the teacher/scholar relationship, to advising and participating actively in student organizations, to modeling the life of the mind, to convincing colleagues to evaluate curricular goals and objectives, the true teacher/ scholar wears many hats. An excellent teacher mentors students, helping them find their own best vocation that uses their special talents to make a difference in the world. An excellent teacher believes and affirms in her teaching that all students can learn and is disappointed when all do not. An excellent teacher attempts many different styles of teaching, adapting to the class, knowing and assessing their backgrounds and interests, challenging each of them to develop to their full potential, encouraging their involvement with the material. An excellent teacher creates an atmosphere simultaneously welcoming and challenging to all her students by inviting all her students to reach beyond the text, to extend their learning, to apply it in new contexts, to envision the future.

An excellent teacher is an involved learner and scholar, not just in the narrow sense of the teacher's own discovery scholarship (read research), but also in the broader sense of constant renewal of the joy of discovery, of relating the subject at hand to other contexts, of awareness of the scholarly work on how people learn. An excellent teacher integrates research into her teaching by incorporating new data and theories, by contrasting current controversies within a discipline, by involving students in reading and critiquing current research findings, by helping students develop the critical analytical skills to evaluate ongoing research agendas. Integration of research in teaching requires knowledge of unanswered questions at the boundaries of the discipline's paradigm. It necessitates questioning the current paradigm, seeing with the new eyes of a novice. Excellent teachers find ways to help students appreciate the historical development of a field and the social and political context of the questions asked within a discipline, the boundaries and types of evidence that are acceptable in support of theory. An excellent teacher helps students develop the discernment to draw conclusions from evidence, to trust their own conclusions and judgment and to persuade others of the justification of their analysis. Even more important, an excellent teacher assists students to understand how research is applied to other contexts.

An excellent science teacher/scholar instills in students the values of the science enterprise, introducing them to the process of investigation, the ends for which we as scientists work and the rules that guide our translation of means to ends. Excellent teachers encourage active, inquiry-based learning, not mere passive acquisition of facts and databases of disciplines. The three Ps approach to teaching, (problem posing, problem probing and persuasion) captures the essence of what I mean by active learning. An active learner questions authority, i.e. questions the textbook as well as the teacher, never accepting on faith, but convincing and persuading herself through reasoned analysis. An excellent teacher is ever becoming, evolving; she never stands still, satisfied with last year's notes and last year's strategies. Through reflective judgment, by evaluating successes and failures in past classes and pedagogies, assessing the impact of each adaptation in the crucible of her environments, she selects for improvement continuously.

An excellent teacher does not have to reinvent the wheel, because she is aware of alternative ways of teaching a discipline; she studies how others teach, she is aware of new materials, simulations and technologies that enhance teaching. An excellent teacher models learning by sharing approaches to tackling new problems and questions, by analyzing evidence aloud, by showing why she thinks a theory or piece of evidence is valid, by speculating on alternative approaches to answering a question. An excellent teacher helps her students develop tools for continued learning; she teaches them to write clearly and persuasively, to know their audience and adapt their language and syntax to the situation, for as someone once declared, writing is thinking how do I know what I think until I write it down. She teaches them to evaluate and assess their own learning, for ultimately it is not the judgment of external agencies that is of the most value, but one's own.

An excellent teacher understands students: their needs, their rhythms, their goals. She urges them to ever greater striving without setting them against one another in destructive competition. She engenders collaboration, modeling and encouraging them to teach one another, to develop a mastery of expertise and share it. She is sensitive to the feelings and emotions of individual students and to the class as a whole organism. She's an engineer who can raise and lower the class thermostat with a question, an exercise or the lift of an eyebrow. She motivates and inspires.

Every day I hope to be a little more like her.

Pat Marsteller is a senior lecturer in the biology department and director of the Hughes Programs in Biology.

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