Most teaching careers last for years; for many of us, a lifetime. With noses to the grindstone, we don’t usually take stock of where we are in light of where we’ve been. We know that we aren’t teaching as we did in the beginning. The changes feel like growth, although we can’t always name what’s different, how the changes came about, or their impact on student learning. Taking a look back sometimes makes the way forward easier to see.
Teacher growth has been of interest to many researchers. Because the time trajectory makes longitudinal studies difficult, those who explore instructional growth tend to rely on interviews. In them teachers regularly report that they started out focused on the content; it’s what they’ve been studying for years, and so that’s what they teach. Our attraction to content tends to be career-long. We’re married (most of us happily) to what we teach. Early on, though, we come to realize that we teach students along with the content and teaching students has instructional implications most of us had not previously considered. Is the instruction keeping students interested, are they motivated, do they understand the content, are they learning? The research has characterized this realization as a transition from a teacher- to a student-centered focus, with the two conceptions separate and independent.
A recent qualitative study (Mesny et al., 2021) of 49 business faculty at four different institutions builds on previous research but takes it in some new directions. The research team asked faculty questions about their approaches to teaching, changes they’d made across the years, and their understanding of growth as it related to their teaching.
The analysis of lengthy faculty interviews revealed four teaching approaches based on primary teaching objectives: “(a) student satisfaction (adjusting to what students want or like), (b) educator satisfaction (finding enjoyment and authenticity in teaching), (c) short-term student learning (ensuring students perform well on exams and assignments), and (d) long-term student learning (striving for impacts on management practice)” (p. 51). What seemed to motivate changes was discovering that tension existed between the objectives. Providing instruction that satisfied students didn’t always result in instructional approaches that teachers found fulfilling—ones that made them like teaching. “We found three distinct tensions: (a) tension between educator satisfaction and student satisfaction, (b) tension between student learning and student satisfaction, and (c) tension between long-term student learning and short-term student learning” (p. 56).
Interestingly, faculty comments did not indicate that moving between objectives meant abandoning one for another. “Rather than switching completely from one objective to the next, educators in the sample balanced these tensions by monitoring several objectives simultaneously” (p. 57). So, they didn’t stop trying to teach in ways that satisfied students, but at the same time they incorporated approaches that promoted student learning.
The researchers describe the change faculty reported as a gradual process of expanding awareness. As they put it, “student-centered approaches incorporate teacher-centered approaches by focusing on what is happening for both teachers and students in a teaching–learning situation. [This] phenomenographic perspective stands in contrast to the cognitive perspective, which suggests that teacher-centered and student-centered approaches are independent and that moving from one to the other involves a shift from one set of beliefs to another” (p. 52). Nor did faculty comments reveal sequential or steady movement from one objective to the next. Rather, they expressed an expanding awareness of teaching complexities and the need to constantly balance competing demands and changing priorities.
It makes sense to me that teachers don’t leave behind earlier and often less sophisticated conceptions of teaching but incorporate them into an enlarged understanding of what teaching is and how to approach it. The consideration of course content must be ongoing, but it isn’t all that matters in the learning process. We know that when students are “satisfied”—more bluntly, when they “like” a course—they put more effort into it, and that raises the chances they’ll get more learning out of it.
Work on teacher growth offers views of instructional development that open a window to our own growth. Where we’ve been and how we’ve gotten there can reveal next steps for us. Perhaps teaching’s loveliest feature is its potential for growth—there’s no end to better teaching.
Mesny, A., Rivas, D. P., & Haro, S. P. (2021). Business school professors teaching approaches and how they change. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 20(1), 50–72. https://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2018.0018