Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
I am pleased to announce that the Stanford Learning Laboratory's
Tomorrow's Professor Mailing List(SM) has formed a "Shared Mission Partnership"
with the National Teaching and Learning Forum (NT&LF) to exchange selected
postings and related information and of interest to our subscribers
NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning.
If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at
[http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed
version--offers subscribers stimulating insight from colleagues eager to
share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning.
>From time to time the Tomorrow's Professor Listerv will feature selected
articles from the NT&LF newsletter and in the process draw subscribers'
attention to the many in-depth resources available through the NT&LF web
site. Here is a recent article, by Laura Border, University of Colorado,
Bolder, on the role of mastery in student learning.
UP NEXT: Nine Functions of a University
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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A SHARED MISSION PARTNERSHIP WITH THE NATIONAL TEACHING AND
(KUNG FU AND THE ART OF TEACHING)
By Laura L. B. Border
University of Colorado at Boulder
The fall semester is in full swing. Students rush from class to class, from
the library to the campus center, from work to the gym. Some are focused on
what they are doing, what they want, and where they are going in their
lives. Others manage to look busy but are actually moving from space to
space with no awareness of who they are and what they want out of life. It
takes only a few visits to local college classrooms to see the difference.
Some students sit up front, ask questions, answer questions, do their
homework and come to class prepared. Others sit in the back, write letters,
read the paper, or snooze. One of the most surprising results of this
difference in diligence is that if we follow the attentive students and the
dilatory ones to the end of their four year assignment as undergraduates,
it's highly likely that both will receive a bachelor's degree and go off
merrily as graduates of the institution. It is also safe to presume that
the difference in their level of skill will be remarkable.
Where Credit Is Due
Nevertheless, the credit system ensures that students who barely make the
grade graduate right alongside those who have excelled. Rather than
accumulating evident skills and knowledge, they have both accumulated a
certain number of credits. This issue about the credit system worries me a
bit because Europe is about to embrace this very American form of
schooling. I submit that the varied European systems and the American
system would do well to reconsider the concept of mastery--mastery in the
sense of thorough understanding and consummate skill, not in the sense of
domination, imperiousness, or peremptory behavior. Mastery has a long
history in various forms of education. The master painter, builder,
sculptor, or writer could show extraordinary skill or supreme intellectual
or artistic achievement. If "mastery" sounds too old-world, call it
"personal achievement." Personal achievement can only occur if an
individual understands who he or she is, what he or she would like to
attain, and consciously pursues the acquisition of the necessary knowledge
and skills to reach a chosen goal. It's more than a university degree, and
it's what I think should be the result of post-secondary education.
In the US we have two cultural archetypes that militate against the
concept of mastery or personal achievement. One is the image of the
do-it-yourselfer; the other is of the self-made man. Both, of course, have
their good points, but an unconscious reliance on either can lead to a
certain belief in anti-intellectualism or anti-mastery. Rather than taking
the time and effort to become a master, the do-it-yourselfer gets the job
done. But I think these archetypes have a negative influence on students'
behaviors in American classrooms. They are wed with the notion of degrees
seen as certificates and grades as commodities, and confound the ideals of
education with the often laudable American emphasis on "getting the job
done." Thus, they lead to a devaluing of the concept of mastery and reduce
"personal achievement" to a collection of external markers instead of the
measure of internal growth.
Grasshoppers or Locusts
All this became especially clear to me when I joined a Kung Fu class
recently. Suddenly I was in a learning environment where each student was
attentive, engaged, personally empowered, and quite frankly working to
achieve personal mastery. It was so invigorating and exciting I have gone
back many times. The difference between many courses on campus and my Kung
Fu class is quite astounding. As a longtime observer of teachers and
students, I have been delighted to find at last a classroom that seems to
match my learning style perfectly.
Imagine a classroom in which the teacher knows the precise level of each
student and arranges them accordingly. Because each student is wearing a
belt that indicates precisely each one's level of experience or lack
thereof, students know exactly where they stand in the class. Testing is
done individually and students must prove themselves worthy of moving up to
the next rank. Learning and testing is not focused on physical skill or
mental prowess alone, but on both. The teacher is an enthusiastic coach, a
playful questioner, a well-organized presenter who understands and
communicates theory and practice clearly, and cares passionately about the
topic, the students, and the results of the class as a whole. And, even
more interestingly, classes are long--up to two and a half or three hours,
alternating physical activity with history and theory, spirituality with
physical technique. The course program states that course times are
approximate in order to be able to devote the proper amount of time to each
The classroom is a long empty carpeted rectangle able to accommodate
various sized groups effectively. During classes, students may sit on the
floor, stand, or move about. There is no attendance problem, rather the
class is brimming with students eagerly bumping into each other to find a
spot. No one leaves early and students linger to chat with each other on
their way out.
Masters, Novices, and Teaching Assistants
Teaching assistants are plentiful. In fact, for about one-half of the class
time, various levels of students work in small groups under their guidance.
Beginning students don't complain. They are quite content to have
individual and energetic attention lavished upon them. No one complains
about teaching assistants at all because even the beginners know that
learning to teach is an integral part of advanced training. They have
already read about this in their course book, which states that through
teaching others, one truly gains mastery and understanding of one's art and
practice. In fact, the beginning students actually enjoy the teaching
assistants because each one has a
If "mastery" sounds too old-world, call it "personal achievement."
slightly different approach, notices certain points, gives unique
examples, and shares personal perceptions of the art. Each one has a
personal physical and mental approach, allowing beginners to experiment and
explore a broader range of motion and technique. Naturally, the students
also appreciate it when the master steps in and clarifies a motion or
technique or tells a personal anecdote.
A Pedagogically Wide World
It has fascinated me to experience the different metaphors, examples, and
terms various instructors used to communicate the form. One might talk
about how you will injure your muscles or joints by using the wrong form.
Another might demonstrate the application of the form to a real contact
situation, while yet another might use a metaphor such as "let your arms
move like the wings of a crane."
The content is not watered down or doled out slowly. Students are
challenged to learn five to ten clusters of forms or techniques at a time.
They are expected to mirror, question, try out and practice each set until
they can perform them smoothly alone, relying only on physical and mental
memory. They are also required to learn the history and mythologies that
pertain to the art, the definitions and use of Chinese terms, and an
abundance of forms and techniques.
The teacher's approach is a nice melding of abstract conceptualization,
concrete experience, reflective observation, and active experimentation.
Each class has a format that begins with an introduction, a warm-up
exercise, a demonstration, a teacher-modeled group practice session,
followed by individual work with the teaching assistants, and ends with a
teacher discussion and question session, followed by a homework assignment
and cool-down exercise.
Humor is an important element of the class. Humor that challenges students
to be stronger and more adept. Humor that encourages students to tolerate
some discomfort for the good of their achievement.
Learning: The Endless Test
Within this congenial, focused, and attentive environment, testing is a
constant reality, yet it is not feared. One takes each test when one is
ready and has been deemed so by the masters and the teaching assistants.
Testing is also cumulative so that students at higher levels are also
tested on information and forms from lower levels, requiring constant
review and renewed practice. The test becomes an avenue to demonstrate to
oneself and others how one is doing physically, mentally, emotionally, and
as a member of the group. Success is rewarded concretely and immediately
with feedback from a panel, a numerical score that assesses performance,
and before a week has elapsed, with the awarding of a certificate and belt.
The entire system is designed to motivate students to succeed. Students
are aware of the length of time it took each level of students to master
consecutive levels. The teachers offer -reminders about pretest
possibilities and about knowledge, form, and content. Everyone knows there
is no short cut, each student must achieve the requirements for each level
in physical and -intellectual skill.
The multicultural aspect allows for a unique blend of American and Chinese
values, stories, and comparisons. Cultural comparisons create poignant
learning moments, stimulate questions, and stir the imagination (i.e.,
diversity is good pedagogy). Stories amuse and instruct (knowledge in
context). The histories of heroes inspire (ethics, ideals, values
As I have watched these very successful teachers who have their disciples
literally sitting at their feet, I have wondered whatever happened to the
real concept of the university. And the words of our Latin forefathers have
echoed in my brain, mens sana in corpore sano--a sound mind in a sound