The Look of Teaching

When you picture good teaching in your minds eye, what do you see? A charismatic speaker in a large lecture hall, perhaps in a room with raked seating and rows of students at rapt attention? A faculty member seated at a seminar table, surrounding by students, and all treating each other as peers? A senior scientist helping a neophyte scientist in a laboratory working on a piece of equipment, or a music prof and student collaborating and playing a bar of music? My images are all drawn from personal experience, informed by good teachers that I have seen work their own special magic. I would wager, too, that each of us draws on our own history with our personal reference points.

Cassandra Volpe Horii and Martin Springborg have written a most intriguing and interesting book that picks up this question in an unusual and provocative manner. What Teaching Looks Like: Higher Education through Photographs is unlike any other book on higher education that I have ever read. The work is visually arresting, extremely engaging, and profound. That’s a rare combination. The authors take a collegial tone, similar to what one might hear in a center of pedagogy. Geared towards practitioners and those keen on understanding what is going on when teachers teach and students learn, the book uses black and white photography to frame a shared inquiry.

Horii is the Associate Vice Provost for education and the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University. She has led the POD Network, a fantastic organization focused on educational development, and is nationally known for her work in and around teaching. Springborg is the founding director of a center for teaching an learning at Inver Hills Community College and Dakota County Technical College. He’s a talented photographer and art teacher. In What Teaching Looks Like, Horii and Springborg present a range of documentary photographs of teaching and learning in a variety of settings and situations. Accompanying their images is researched-informed analysis on engaged teaching and learning, how and where it happens, and why. Open-ended questions and reflections are woven throughout. This is an intriguing interdisciplinary study.

Following an extensive introduction explaining how the study came to be, the first chapter focuses on the classroom interactions. The photographs are interspersed throughout the text, or perhaps from a different lens, text is interspersed among the images. The second chapter takes the student’s perspective. The angles, the framing, and the feeling is different from the back of the classroom. The third chapter, on the messy nature of education, is good fun. While Horii and Springborg write of chaos, their images and narrative speaks more to organized untidiness, the kitchen counters covered with food while a good meal is being cooked. The where and how of teaching – the physical and technological environment – is discussed in chapter 4. The two remaining chapters are looser, examining outside of the campus and the impacts of technology.

What I found most interesting about What Teaching Looks Like, above and beyond it stirring a desire to return to the classroom, were the ways it offered different lenses to consider teaching. As an illustration, think about the various tools cellphone technology can work on an image. It’s now possible to format an image in new colors, in black and white, in sepia, as a line drawing, as a cartoon, and as a cross-hatched sketch. While each of these formats and genres remains true to the underlying image, each imparts to it a particular sort of seeing, feeling and understanding. Springborg’s photographs do the same to teaching. The more that I looked at them, considered perspective, space, the actions and interactions of subjects, and intentions, the more I came to appreciate the complexities of a teaching and learning experience.

What Teaching Looks Like is a fascinating study. I encourage you to read it and to give its questions your consideration. I’d wager that you might see what goes in the classroom in different ways. And as for Horii and Springborg, it would be wonderful if they might take their collaborative approach to a complimentary question: what does learning look like?

David Potash

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