Ed Strong was one of my grad school professors at Tulane. On one of my early postings on this blog, I mentioned his name with a list of professors who I found notable for their teaching abilities when I was in college. Ed found that posting and sent me a note. We have remained in touch off and on through email and Facebook. A few months ago, Ed sent me a link to one of the postings on his blog, Cabbages and Kings, and stated that I was one of his few Facebook friends who might be interested in the post.
I clicked on the link and found an interesting post where Dr. Strong shares his teaching philosophy. He originally wrote the piece for his application for a tenure-track position at the university where he works as a full-time visiting professor. You can read his post yourself or my synopsis below. Either way, I think it is worth sharing.
Dr. Strong has a unique and varied teaching background. His first teaching opportunities were with the Army where the teaching philosophy focused on the notion that only three teaching points could be absorbed and retained by students in an hour-long class. From the Army, Dr. Strong went to INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France which uses a teaching style similar to that found at the Harvard Business School: individual instructors are required to undertake extensive preparation, often in conjunction with other professors teaching the same or similar classes. His time at Tulane, as he explains, brought a very different teaching experience. Dr. Strong writes, “…I spent 34 years at Tulane, a school whose culture held that the instructor was – once the classroom doors were closed – answerable to no one for what went on in the classroom.” From these experiences, Dr. Strong’s teaching philosophy has settled into a somewhat eclectic and, by his own admission, ever-evolving one.
Dr. Strong notes that “students are the raw material that we work with and making sure that the ‘student can learn’ means understanding the capabilities and the backgrounds of the students in a course.” He blames the cliché of dwindling student attention spans for convincing students over the last 15 years that they do in fact have shorter attention spans; according to Dr. Strong, this cliché has provided a convenient excuse for students who perhaps really only lack motivation or direction in their academic pursuits. This point was of particular interest to me considering the online nature of APUS degrees.
I would argue that online courses require an added level of motivation and dedication from the student. Since there are no physical classrooms or face-to-face interactions with professors and other students, APUS students must be that much more mindful of their time management and information retention. Perhaps online courses even provide an advantage for those who feel that they do in fact have a dwindling attention span: if an APUS student finds that they are losing focus on a reading assignment or online lecture, for example, he or she can simply put down the assignment, refocus and continue at his or her own pace. I recently viewed a news report about Blackberry users and the issue regarding attention span interruptions. The reporter interviewed researchers who stated that the interruptions caused by messages being received to the Blackberry are disruptive and distracting. At the same time, the reporter quoted the researchers as stating that eventually, the Blackberry user becomes acclimated to the disruptions and learns to work through them. Based on this research, I am not sure that I agree with Ed Strong that student attention rates are dwindling as much as I believe that there are many more things to keep them distracted inside the classroom. However, I believe that the combination of a motivated student with a motivated instructor will lead to a satisfactory outcome every time.
Dr. Strong also discusses his approach to identifying the most relevant and worthwhile course information, a point I also found quite interesting. According to his post, over the past couple of decades, textbooks have taken on an all-inclusive nature that often leaves them overflowing with information, much of which is not directly relevant to a particular professor’s course content or objective. With this in mind, Dr. Strong has developed his own supplemental course materials that focus on the topics he finds most relevant. This obviously puts an additional burden on the professor who must glean the most worthwhile pieces of content while being mindful of the (actual or perceived) shortened attention spans of today’s students. Given that the world’s intellectual and printed material is doubling every year to year and a half, this seems like a better practice than relying on a textbook that may be outdated shortly after it has been published.
The section of Dr. Strong’s statement on his teaching philosophy that is most interesting to me is his discussion of grading systems and why he feels that they are largely irrelevant. Dr. Strong explains that in 1971 while at INSEAD, he took part in a comprehensive review of the school’s grading rubric. Dr. Strong writes, “As a result of that experience, I became and remain an advocate of classifying people into three groups: The upper sixth [who will become candidates for honors], the middle two-thirds [who are in no danger of failing], and the lower sixth [who become candidates for probation or termination].” Based on such a rubric, specific grades (A, B, etc.) do seem largely irrelevant. He does concede, however, that grades and graded exercises are significant motivators for students. Perhaps for this reason alone, it is worthwhile to maintain a traditional grading system. When one considers the issues of dwindling (whether truly or simply perceived) attention span and overwhelming levels of information available in textbooks and various other sources, a traditional grading system seems to be somewhat necessary.
The final section of Dr. Strong’s statement discusses the evolution of his teaching philosophy vis-à-vis the rapidly accelerating development of new technologies which can be utilized in (and, often instead of) the classroom. He notes that he has been integrating the use of technologies in his classrooms for some time now and expresses some disappointment that he will likely miss the exciting opportunities that technological advances are sure to bring to education in the coming decades. Technology in the classroom is the cornerstone of the APUS model and I applaud Dr. Strong for his use of such technologies in his brick and mortar classroom. There can be little doubt that he is correct that for all the advances we’ve seen in recent decades, technological advances will continue at an accelerating pace. I believe that students and the higher education community as a whole will surely benefit from such advances even if they do require us to tweak our teaching philosophies a bit. That said, if Ed wants to tape a few of his lectures, I would be glad to post them on iTunes University. Technology may enable better learning for distance learning programs as well as traditional programs, but I would rather combine those technologies with a proven professor like Ed anytime. Thanks for the memories and the lesson, Ed!