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Teaching without Training

by Robert Sommer - February 07, 2007

Like most of my colleagues, I had no courses in Education or training in teaching. I am not proud of this lacuna in my background. I regard pedagogy as a vital field of study and am pleased to write recommendation letters for students who want to become K-12 teachers or undertake graduate work in Education. Yet intellectually I must confront the paradox of performing well in the classroom without specific training in teaching. What does this say about education as a field of academic study?

I have been a college instructor for 45 years. Officially retired in 2003, I continue to teach summer classes because I enjoy the contact with young people. By all accounts, I am a good instructor with high enrollments and positive student evaluations. I have written articles and chapters about various aspects of the classroom and participated in teaching workshops. I am not a Super Teacher; a title reserved for a few award winning figures whose names are legend in campus culture. In the verbiage of student evaluation of teaching, I am a good but not outstanding instructor.

Like most of my colleagues, I had no courses in education or training in teaching. I am not proud of this lacuna in my background. I regard pedagogy as a vital field of study and am pleased to write recommendation letters for students who want to become K-12 teachers or undertake graduate work in education. Yet intellectually I must confront the paradox of performing well in the classroom without specific training in teaching. What does this say about education as a field of academic study?

It may be helpful to search for parallels in my life, as I am an autodidact in other endeavors. I chaired four academic departments and headed a research center without formal training in Administration. I was a good parent (and now an even better grandparent) without any coursework in child development. Although lacking formal instruction in the medium, I am a reasonably good watercolorist. I own a half-dozen books on watercolor painting which I have yet to read. I tell those who want to learn painting that the formula is practice, practice, and more practice.

My first book Expertland, published in 1963, distinguished among experts by training, experience, inheritance, and revelation. The latter two categories are of little importance in contemporary Western society. No one is acknowledged to be an architect, musician, or physician because a parent excelled in that field. Nor is expertise in those fields likely to be granted on the basis of having been called or chosen or having undergone a spiritual transformation. Our society relies primarily on credentials based on a combination of training and experience.

In the matter of teaching, I am an expert by experience. I use the etymological definition of expert, from the Latin expiri, to put to the test. Over a long career, I have been put to the test as a teacher and passed. This is also true of almost all my colleagues at a large public university. I am proud of the high level of instruction on campus, in the face of what many regard as a research-dominant ethos.

If we haven’t been trained in teaching, how is it that so many faculty are good at it? I am not saying we are all good, or that we couldn’t be better, only that the quality of instruction seems high in the absence of formal instruction in pedagogy. Resolving this seeming paradox requires semantic clarification. Teaching at a university is different in many respects from teaching K-12. Students are older, more mature, and independent. They or their parents have paid tuition and they buy their own textbooks and materials. Contact hours at a university are lower than but we are paid more than K-12 teachers and our jobs require a higher educational level. On the other side of the ledger, class size at a university is typically larger; most of my classes contain over a hundred students. I lecture at a podium in a large hall while the K-12 teacher is more interactive with small groups in a small classroom.

In view of these important differences, is it legitimate to equate teaching in the two settings? Even if it were established that university instructors do not require formal training in pedagogy (and this remains an open question), does this have any relevance for K-12 instruction? The term “teaching” is found in both settings but the activities, people, hours, and settings are sufficiently different to raise questions as to whether another term such as “lecturing” or “professing” should be applied to college instruction. If my colleagues were asked to list “occupation” on an application, very few would write “teacher.” I suspect this would also be true of faculty at community, state, and private colleges.

If one were to call what college faculty do by a name other than teaching, it still leaves unanswered the question of whether formal training in teaching should be required to do it. My first teaching assignment in 1961 was a trial by fire. I was placed at the front of a large classroom and expected to perform. In graduate school I had been a Research Assistant rather than a Teaching Assistant. I had available my lecture notes from courses I had taken and the role models provided by my professors, plus whatever I had gleaned from media portrayals of academic life, which said very little about the gritty details of the lecture system. Of the two courses I taught that first semester, I did very well in one, receiving among the highest student evaluations of my career, and very poorly in the second as measured by student attendance and evaluations. I do not recall my students’ performance on standardized tests being significantly different from that of other instructors teaching the same courses.

I subsequently muddled my way through blackboards, greenboards, and whiteboards; progressed through slides, transparencies, films, VCRs, and now to PowerPoint images. I learned how to construct and grade multiple-choice, true-false, short-answer, and essay questions; and to deal with absenteeism, disruptive behavior, and cheating. Out of this came a personal approach to teaching that I would not recommend to others without further empirical support. I never assume that what works for me in the classroom will work for another instructor. With hindsight, I would have benefited greatly from a teaching practicum in graduate school that included supervised experience in lecturing to large classes, a teaching resource center which I could have visited for advice, a mentor teacher who would have visited my classroom and provided consultation afterward, or even a manual on what it means to be a college instructor. I was given none of the above. I survived and gradually learned to do what was required. Reflection and writing, skills that were emphasized in graduate school, helped me cope with the frustrations of multiple-choice examinations, grading a hundred essays, not knowing my students’ names, and wondering what I was doing in the classroom when all the relevant course information was contained in the textbook. I wrote serious and sometimes satirical articles (each genre had its place) on such issues; the writing part of a coping strategy.

Positive recent developments in higher education include more graduate courses and workshops devoted to college teaching; awards for teaching excellence; mentors assigned to new faculty; support for instructional innovations; campus resource centers offering guidance, consultation, lecture visits, and videotaping; and colloquia, workshops, and journals devoted to teaching in the disciplines.

Midway through a long academic career, I was hired by a large corporation to give a traveling lecture series. As a condition of employment, I had to fly to corporate headquarters for a training session with the company speech coach. Having delivered public lectures for several decades, I didn't believe the trip was necessary, but I was curious as to what formal instruction would be like.

The session with a credentialed speech coach was eye-opening. This was the first time anyone seriously critiqued my delivery, my posture and gestures, my reliance on notes, and eye contact with the audience. Among other things, I was told that my lecture would improve if I talked less to the lectern and the projector screen and looked directly at the audience and that it would help if I removed my hands from my pockets. I took this advice to heart and I think it made me a better public speaker. I am very grateful to have had this brief training session with a professional.

To conclude, I was part of an academic cohort that taught without formal instruction in teaching. I survived, but I do not recommend this approach for new faculty. Our classrooms need good teachers rather than heroes and survivors.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 07, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13098, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 9:07:24 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Sommer
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT SOMMER is Distinguished Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of California, Davis where he chaired Departments of Psychology, Environmental Design, Rhetoric & Communication, and Art. His books include Personal Space, Tight Spaces (Hard Architecture and how to Humanize it), The Mind's Eye, and A Practical Guide to Behavioral Research 5th ed. (with Barbara A. Sommer).
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