This article first appeared in the August 2002 issue of The Teaching Professor.
Books and journals on college teaching are chock full of best practices, compelling activities, and successful ideas for the classroom. These resources do help, but also helpful are experiences at the unsuccessful end of the teaching spectrum. I am referring to clinkers—those best practices that go off track or great activities that students greet with disdain. With all the attention paid to those examples of what works, where’s the coverage of what didn’t work and what might be learned from failure?
What should a professor do with a clinker? Should an unsuccessful teaching activity be scrapped or salvaged? These are important questions and ones I’ve tried to answer on many occasions. For example, I recently planned to link students in my Psychological Basis of Education with Chinese college students via e-mail. A colleague helpfully gave me the name of a contact person in China to provide e-mail addresses. I imagined the activity broadening my students' cultural horizons. Furthermore, I believed I was making an excellent use of technology. Rather than isolated students working at their desks, my class would be building lasting international friendships. I could envision the e-pals exchanging interesting information about their lives at home and in school.
Despite all these wonderful intentions and substantial efforts on all sides, this innovation did not work. There were a variety of problems. Many of the Chinese students did not have regular access to computers and e-mail, and their addresses winked out intermittently. The e-mail text did not always come across clearly. Sometimes the messages looked like strings of elaborate graphics. In addition, the Chinese school calendar does not correspond to ours. None of the holidays are the same and this made building connections over a short period of time even more challenging. To be fair, two or three of my students did successfully exchange messages with their e-pals, but it was nowhere near the glorious multicultural communication fest I had imagined.
Of course, the problems associated with any clinker can be researched and addressed, even though confronting the failure is sometimes embarrassing and painful. In my case, the assignment, with its many kinks early in the process, may be better suited for a yearlong course. A call to the technology department at my college might yield helpful advice on the situation. In the future, I would like to offer my students a selection of potential e-pals from different countries. Students' names and addresses could be pursued through the international arm of one of my professional organizations. In fact, I am all for reworking and retrying teaching activities with less than stellar results, but that doesn’t change the fact that it didn’t work in this particular class.
I was fortunate in some ways. The e-pals assignment was not a linchpin of the course—which might be an important bit of advice when attempting to implement any new assignment. Because it was my first effort, I offered the activity to students for extra credit only. I planned an alternative because sometimes I have students who are not comfortable online. As the problems with the e-pal assignment emerged, I adjusted the assignment. Instead of reporting on their e-pal experience, I asked my students, largely educators and educators-in-training, to write about their own teaching mistakes and how they were addressed. The responses were fascinating.
I see the whole experience as an unplanned lesson for my students and for myself. Here are some of the lessons I learned:
Teaching is a fascinating and dynamic process, but it can also be isolating and secretive, especially if we only talk about what works. Professors should share their clinkers with trusted colleagues. They probably have plenty of their own stories and ideas for remediation. Furthermore, reporting what didn’t work may prevent others from making the same mistake, a service in itself. Instructional innovations don’t come with a successful implementation guarantee. All have the potential to go awry. But when that happens there are just as many important lessons to be learned by everyone.
At the time of original publication, Sharon Hollander, PsyD, was an assistant professor of education at Georgian Court College (now Georgian Court University).
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