Report on T. A. Workshops at Cornell University

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In five years of teaching music in colleges, both independently and under supervision, I was given little help in developing the skills I needed to teach. My undergraduate and graduate education gave me good preparation in the content I would be teaching but practically no preparation for teaching this content. My teaching supervisor was willing to talk about problems as they arose but didn't have time for more general training for teaching. Although I had a methods course in the teaching of ear training, I was given no practice in actual teaching, in planning a course, in planning a lecture, in leading a group discussion (my job as a teaching assistant), in handling problems in a class, in creating an atmosphere conducive to the kind of learning I wanted to take place. I suspect that most teachers have had the same experience: they plunge in, imitate their own teachers, learn something from experience, and never have an opportunity to receive constructive criticism of their teaching or to learn new skills which would help them teach better.

So when the chairman of the Cornell University Senate's Committee on Educational Innovation asked me, as a committee member, what the committee should do, I immediately thought of the possibility of holding a series of workshops to train teachers—specifically, to give some help to Teaching Assistants at Cornell. (We soon found that most graduate students who had time to work on improving their teaching were, like me, not teaching at the time of the workshop.) The idea met with an enthusiastic response from a few people who were willing to spend the necessary—and large—amount of time required to create the workshop.

Because the demand for teacher training came from graduate students who were interested in improving their teaching but who did not know what kinds of help were available, we sought the advice of various faculty members and relied on one who suggested a series introducing us to various possible ways to learn about teaching. We invited teachers from the Education Department and the Center for the Improvement of Undergraduate Education (CIUE) at Cornell to give single sessions.

Our first leader, after asking us to recall the best and worst teaching we had experienced, asked us to form small groups to list characteristics we saw as making good teachers. Our lists included lack of paranoia, interest in subject, interest in students, sense of purpose, non-authoritarian attitude, flexibility, knowing the level of the students, making students active in learning, and challenging students' assumptions. After sharing the ideas of these small groups with the whole group, the small groups tried to define what they hoped to learn at these workshops: How can I lead discussions without controlling or stifling the class? How can I get effective and exciting communication? What are the options for structuring a course? How can I accept students' ideas while being able to criticize them? How can I get students involved in the subject? All of these questions are met in music as well as other fields. We soon learned one problem associated with asking students what they want to learn: we weren't prepared to satisfy all the needs expressed.

Our second instructor offered a model for what he called the structure of knowledge. He conferred with several students in advance about specific concepts they were to teach to the group. His structure resulted in remarkably clear explanations of complex subjects in many fields including the humanities and sciences. (I found his method useful in preparing a graduate seminar in musicology.) He suggested these questions about any knowledge which you wish to teach: (1) What question is at issue? (2) What are the concepts in terms of which the question is asked? (3) What are the procedures used to answer the question? (4) What conclusions are reached? (5) What is the relevance of the question? (This last question is often omitted by teachers, but it is often asked, for example, by performers taking music history or music theory courses.)

Since our series was open-ended, we felt free to repeat the second session with different student teachers and to invite our first instructor back for a session in which we brainstormed (in two separate groups) ideas for different ways to structure classes and effective ways to lead discussion and then reported back to the whole group. We found that the brainstorming results were most meaningful to those who had heard the ideas as stated in the two separate groups and had been able to ask for clarification, and that the reports to the whole group were not so helpful. This method can be used by any group too large for effective discussion. Since we had all experienced many examples of teaching and were concerned about it, we were able to pool our ideas and learn from each other without using outside experts.

After a session on the work of CIUE, our final session of the semester was on "group dynamics" (the interactions of people in groups) as they affect teaching. Our leader for the evening set the task of observing our group's processes (how our group functioned). He then withdrew from the group and offered only occasional, impersonal comments. This type of group, called a Tavistock group, made clear to us how groups react to someone they see as having authority, how they react when that person refuses to lead or help them, and how group members react to each other. During the discussion following this session the leader pointed out how these situations occur in classes, disguised in comments about subject matter. (Of course, they also occur frequently in rehearsals of musical ensembles.)

At the conclusion of the semester we felt dissatisfied with our eclectic approach and tried to narrow our goals. A new planning group was formed from workshop participants of the first semester. We considered: working on how to lead discussions, providing more opportunities for practice teaching, working on group dynamics, studying the resources found at CIUE, and meeting to discuss our teaching experiences. We decided to ask the leader of our final fall session, Whiton Paine of the CIUE, to plan a series for us which would work on the dynamics of small groups as they affect discussions. This choice of group dynamics for our emphasis brought our goals closer to our characteristics of good teachers (lack of paranoia, non-authoritarian attitude, etc.) than to what we had originally said we had hoped for from the workshops. We hoped that after this series some people would want to continue meeting for practice teaching sessions.

Our first spring session attracted more than twice as many participants as we had hoped and planned for, so we often split into smaller groups to work, using an assistant to the leader. Mr. Paine planned the first session as a discussion of a proposed contract for the series. This contract defined the tasks of the workshops (to increase participants' awareness of some of the factors which affect teaching and learning in groups), the responsibilities of the leader and participants, the participation ground rules, and the "boundaries" (time, place). The entire session was devoted to discussing the contract, first in small groups, then by representatives of these groups while the rest of the group observed or briefly joined the discussing group. This method was an effective way of handling the problem of having a group too large for discussion. The contract was altered to eliminate the emphasis on leading discussions.

This session, though not well received itself, was, I believe, the cause of the high degree of commitment of group members. The group was unusually highly motivated: members came on time, cancelled other commitments to attend, and actively participated throughout the series to a degree I have seen only once before. The contract allowed participants to decide in advance whether the goals were appropriate for them and whether the ground rules were acceptable to them. I think giving students this kind of information about a class they are about to take could greatly increase motivation.

The second session practiced teaching and observing skills. In groups of three, each person had a chance to teach, to learn, and to observe. The teacher divided his part of the time into two parts: lecturing, and discussing the material with the student. The discussion part had the ground rule that before presenting his own point of view each person must paraphrase the other person's statement. This immediately showed whether the two participants were understanding each other and enabled the teacher to adapt what he said to the student's level of understanding. In discussing this exercise, we discovered how difficult it is to perceive accurately what you are participating in. We also realized how difficult it is to listen to others while preparing to speak a moment later. Both these problems commonly affect communication between teachers and students. (In my own teaching at this session I discovered another problem: a student who paraphrases too closely may not actually understand what he is parroting.)

In the third session we participated in and observed a group discussion. We noted especially the roles played by different members of the group and the need for "maintenance" (stopping to make sure everyone has understood, or making sure that quiet members are not being left out) as well as task functions.

The fourth session was taught by a substitute, who offered training in counseling skills, though this was not a part of the contract. The group was consulted and, understanding the impossibility of having the regular leader, accepted the substitution without the complaints one might have expected. During this session we practiced using one counseling technique: simply paraphrasing what the counselee has said to show that you understand and to allow him to work out his own problem with a sympathetic listener but without having the problem taken over or pseudo-solved by the counselor.

The fifth session was a Tavistock group. Those who had participated before found that each time is different and that they could learn more with each successive experience.

At the sixth session, after evaluating the earlier sessions, we decided to break up into several smaller groups for the rest of the semester. One group met to share teaching experiences in the light of what they had learned this semester. One group met twice for practice teaching. One group met four times and planned to continue meeting to practice counseling skills and discuss related issues.

Each semester we had students who came to the first session and found that we were not offering what they wanted. After comparing the fall and spring series, we believe that it is far more effective to limit goals and concentrate on one area. I think the fall semester was necessary for us to define our goals, though I don't know that it would be necessary for another group starting a similar series.

With these two series, we have met only a few of the needs expressed in our first session. For the next year we hope to offer several independent series each with a limited purpose. Students from this year's workshops have volunteered to seek leaders and make plans. One probable series will be a repetition of this spring's series.1 We hope to be sponsored by CIUE, which will give some continuity to future series.

Most students in graduate programs in music, like myself, will teach. Their graduate education should give them some preparation for it. From my own experience as student and teacher, I believe that knowing the content you teach is a necessary but not a sufficient qualification for a good teacher. Graduate music departments (together with other departments) should offer some help to students seeking training in the many skills needed in teaching.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Flynn, Elizabeth W. and John F. La Faso, Group Discussion as Learning Process, A Sourcebook (New York, c. 1972).

This book was recommended reading for the spring session.

McKeachie, Wilbert J., Teaching Tips, A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher (Lexington, Mass., c. 1969).

This book was recommended by several of our instructors in the fall term. It is one I have found helpful in my teaching.


1Mr. Whiton Paine believes this series could be adopted successfully by other schools. Leaders with special training in group dynamics would be needed only for the fourth session (which was intended to deal with issues of group membership) and fifth session (Tavistock group). Mr. Paine has available an evaluation of the series and outlines of each of the sessions. He may be reached through CIUE, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14850.

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