It is risky, though, to try something new. Just because a particular approach works well in one class, doesn't mean it will work well in others. Any time we incorporate something new, it takes time to plan and implement. This means that there are opportunity costs. If we incorporate a new activity in class, it means that we need to make time for it by eliminating another activity. It also means that the extra time it takes to plan for the activity is less time we can spend on our work outside of teaching as well. Finally, we also have to take into account student evaluations of our teaching. If we take a risk that fails, we may come to regret it at the end of the semester. With all these reasons not to take risks in our teaching, why should we consider it?
Why take risks?
I've found that when I teach one of my courses in the same way each semester, it's disadvantageous for myself and for my students. First, I'm not growing - in my teaching and in the way I approach my course content. One example that comes to mind for me is the way in which I teach my preservice education students to integrate technology through instructional planning. I have worked with colleagues to develop a particular strategy with materials to assist students in the process, but I essentially used the same series of in-class lessons to introduce it. I realized over time that sticking with the same way to engage students with the material had some issues. Working together with them in class didn't give students the time they needed to work with the materials, grapple with their ideas and produce good work. Consequently, through several different iterations, I have developed a new self-paced, online approach that I think works much better and improves my course.
Trying new strategies and activities also helps us to better respond to students' learning needs and preferences in the classroom. One way I've taken a risk to provide my students with more choice to better meet their needs is through offering more choice in the materials and different strategies to approach their work. Giving them a range of different materials to introduce new content allows them to pick the mode and format that works best for them. I also like to provide options for both the specific focus for course projects and how they present their work as well. While these efforts do require more time for me to plan and prepare, my students consistently have positive things to say about the choice they have in my courses.
Taking risks and trying new things can also increase our enjoyment and engagement with the class. Even when things don't go exactly as planned, experimenting with different strategies for class discussion, student writing assignments, and different ways to present content can keep us engaged and interested in our own work. A few years ago, one activity I had to help students understand TPACK, a theoretical construct to describe teachers' knowledge for integrating technology, had become stale. I traded out a series of readings and a paper with a project where students developed TPACK teaching cases. Not only were these teaching cases much more effective in helping students to understand TPACK, it was also much more satisfying for me to design, facilitate and assess their final projects.
Tips for getting started with new approaches
Despite the potential payoff for trying new approaches in teaching, it can still be daunting. I've learned over time that a few tips can be helpful in taking the leap and being successful with new strategies.
- Try small "hacks" rather than huge changes. If you can identify small, manageable changes to explore you can build confidence to take bigger risks. So, for example, rather than building your course entirely around case studies, try planning and implementing a single, brief case in one class session. This experience will help you to determine if you want to try additional cases in future class sessions.
- Consider your rationale for change. I think that when we make a significant change in our teaching, we ought to have a reason to do so. If we identify a challenge or opportunity in our teaching, we'll be much more likely to invest our time and energy into trying a new approach.
- Determine if the innovation is a fit. Even if we have identified a challenge or opportunity in our course content, a particular strategy or approach we come across may not be a good fit for the content or students in our class. To avoid a mismatch, be sure to clearly identify your learning goals and consider any new ideas against them.
- Be transparent with your students. When you recognize you're taking a risk in trying something new, tell your students up front what you're planning. Tell them why you've decided to try a new approach. Ask them for their feedback afterwards. In my experience, being open and honest with students and then asking them for the input goes a long way towards getting their buy-in for a new approach.
- Be reflective. When you try something new, take some time after class or at the end of the project to think about what you've learned. This reflection can help you to zero in on effective elements of an activity, how you might be able to improve, and what lessons you learned. Armed with these reflections, the next time you try a similar approach, you will have the benefit of your reflective experience.
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