Balancing Teaching Tensions
Diane Zorn, Graduate Programme in Philosophy
Volume 9 Number 2 (December 1999)

Tensions in the Teaching Experience

The theme for this issue originates from Maryellen Weimer's article on Teaching Tensions that appeared in the AAHE Bulletin in May 1990. Weimer identifies five main teaching tensions in today's classrooms:

  1. getting grades versus getting learning;
  2. having the answers versus asking the questions;
  3. intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation;
  4. covering the content versus teaching the material; and
  5. being in control versus taking risks.

This issue addresses two of those tensions and an additional two not mentioned by Weimer.

Weimer's third teaching tension is "intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation," an all too familiar issue that Patrick Phillips deals with in his article, 1281 Words on Generating Classroom Discussion. The problem is determining whether and when to use force and cajoling to motivate students (e.g., implementing pop quizzes and highly structured participation grading schemes), as opposed to attempting to inspire students' intrinsic motivation, that is, "awakening students' latent curiosity." However, as Patrick Phillips shows, the issue of student motivation is not an either/or proposition. Generating classroom discussion requires finding a balance between forcing student participation and inspiring student interest. He offers several useful strategies for increasing student participation and dealing with persistent and intimidating silence, such as the Philosopher's Chair, public debating, and satellite groups.

In her article, Teaching Digital Consumers to Think Critically, Melanie Stewart Millar addresses Weimer's fourth teaching tension "covering the content versus teaching the material." Stewart Millar reports being alarmed at the large number of students in her tutorials who have difficulty thinking critically and independently. She characterizes the tension as one of transferring information while teaching students to organize, manipulate and analyze that information. Stewart Miller's position concurs with Weimer's suggestion (1990) that "[m]aintaining a balance means letting the content be the means, not the end of our educational endeavors".

Teaching tensions can co-exist and exert force separately during any given class. Moreover, these tensions can be further complicated by issues of race and disability. Rosa Prince describes being confronted with racism and disability issues that might have resulted in her feeling helpless and incompetent, had she not dealt with the difficult situation in an open-minded and investigative manner.

In her article, Handling Racism and Disability Issues: A Student Complaint Against a TA with an Accent, she provides an analysis of and suggestions for handling a student complaint about her accent. Following her article, is a checklist for engaged pedagogy as it relates to race and ethnicity from York's Centre for Race and Ethnic Relations.

Many TAs face the difficult task of demonstrating the practical value of theoretical course content to students. Anik Bay explores the tension between theory and practice in her article, Balancing Theory and Practice in Teaching. She traces shifting conceptions of the term practical skills and recommends that we broaden the term to include citizenship skills. She offers suggestions for how TAs can link theory and practice, ways to help students reflect upon those links, and strategies to develop students' citizenship skills.

Tensions in our own Teaching Assumptions and Practice

Each of the articles in this TA issue of Core share some basic assumptions about how TAs should to behave in tutorials, what good teaching practices and educational processes should look like, and what obligations students and TAs have to each other. In keeping with the spirit of this issue to confront opposing forces in teaching experiences, it is worth uncovering and critically reflecting on some of these widely-held assumptions. As Stephen Brookfield (1995) observes:

What we think are democratic, respectful ways of treating people can be experienced by them as oppressive and constraining. One of the hardest things teachers have to learn is that the sincerity of their intentions does not guarantee the purity of their practice. The cultural, psychological, and political complexities of learning and the ways in which power complicates all human relationships (including those between students and teachers) mean that teaching can never be innocent (p. 1).

Consider a couple of examples of teaching practices from the articles in this issue of Core: the discussion circle and journal writing. These practices are founded on common sense assumptions that inform the pedagogical actions and decisions of many TAs (adapted from Brookfield, 1995, pp. 1-27) – assumptions and actions that are probably familiar to teaching assistants, particularly those who see themselves as progressive. I do not mean to suggest that we throw out these practices, only that we critically reflect on both their promise and their pitfalls.

Take, for instance, the widely held belief that the circle draws students into conversation and gives everyone a chance to be seen and heard. Patrick Phillips recommends the practice of seating students in circles, since this arrangement is better suited to discussion, and undermines the less effective lecture mode of teaching. However, citing Gore (1993), Brookfield points out that the experience of being in a circle is ambiguous. The circle can be a congenial, authentic and liberating experience for students who are confident, loquacious and used to academic culture. Yet, the circle can be a painful and humiliating experience for students "who are shy, self-conscious about their different skin color, physical appearance, or form of dress, unused to intellectual discourse, intimidated by disciplinary jargon and the culture of academe, or embarrassed by their lack of education" (Brookfield, 1995, p. 9).

Experiential teaching methods, such as student journals, portfolios, and learning logs, are widely advocated by TAs. Stewart Millar suggests drawing on a variety of student experience by continually validating personal experience and connecting larger social issues to individual realities. She recommends using group work, student exchange of short written pieces, and tutorial-wide discussions about university life or the particular challenges faced by students. Stewart Millar assumes, like many TAs, that such teaching practices create an atmosphere that is more conducive to students' self-reflection and analysis.

However, Brookfield, citing Usher and Edwards (1995), shows how such experiential methods also have the potential to become ritualistic and mandated confessionals (Brookfield, 1995, p. 13). He explains that some students may sense that their teacher is a strong advocate of experiential methods, and pick up on an implicit message that good students reveal dramatic private episodes in their lives. He notes that:

Students who don't have anything painful, traumatic, or exciting to confess may start to feel that their journal falls short. Not being able to produce revelations of sufficient intensity, they may decide to invent some, or they may start to paint quite extraordinary experiences with a sheen of transformative significance. A lack of dramatic experiences or insights may be perceived by students as a sign of failure—an indication that their lives are somehow incomplete and lived at a level that is insufficiently self-aware or exciting (p. 13).

The examination of these two common teaching practices shows that it is not enough to be a reflective teacher. We also need to become critically reflective teachers. For Brookfield, reflection becomes critical when it has two distinctive purposes. First, we need to understand how considerations of power underlie, frame and distort educational processes and interactions. Most TAs are exceptionally good at achieving this first purpose. However, many TAs do not involve themselves in the second objective of questioning our teaching assumptions and practices. As Brookfield aptly observes, "[b]ecoming alert to the oppressive dimensions of our practice (many of which reflect an unquestioned acceptance of values, norms, and practices defined for us by others) is often the first step in working more democratically and cooperatively with students and colleagues" (p. 9).