POGIL or perish?

November 15, 2015

When I came back from my last sabbatical in fall 2012 I resolved that I would teach my organic chemistry class using the POGIL (process-oriented guided inquiry learning) method. I had attended numerous workshops designed to get me up to speed as an author and classroom facilitator of POGIL activities, but this was going to be the big plunge. I learned a lot by doing and I haven’t looked back, POGIL is here to stay in my classroom, but it is interesting to contrast what I am doing now with what happens in other chemistry classrooms around the college.

First, I have to say that my colleagues are devoted teachers. I can point at any of them and see some cluster of teaching abilities that exceed my own. One might do a better job of planning the course, another might be better at bringing the results of recent research into the classroom, and others might be more successful at making students feel good about learning. But it is also interesting to reflect on their almost universal lack of interest in replacing lecture with student-centered instruction.

I can’t say why this is. Perhaps giving a lecture gives them a feeling of control (“if I say this, then it has been taught”) or maybe lecturing operates at a more basic level, namely, the attention that students give them as they lecture is a stroke to the ego? Whatever the rationale, conscious or otherwise, most of them (especially the older ones like me) are not likely to give up lecture any time before they retire.

And so I keep my mouth shut. Right Speech is based on several criteria: is it true? is it helpful? am I the one to say it? Telling my colleagues that there is a better way to teach would probably fail the Right Speech test on at least one count, if not two.

But the world is changing even if my little part of it is not. Johanna Gutlerner, co-director of the Curriculum Fellows Program, Harvard Medical School, had this to say last month when she reviewed “The Graduate School Mess” by Leonard Cassuto for Science magazine (2 Oct 2015, p. 49, DOI 10.1126/science.aac7868):

Taking Cassuto’s point further, we can no longer afford to consider teaching as a career that anyone with an advanced degree is qualified to do. By not modeling high-quality student-centered teaching and not using evidence-based teaching strategies, we leave our graduate students underprepared to teach undergraduates and communicate their research to a general audience. [emphasis is mine]

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