3M Fellow Patrick Maher on why good teachers take risks

Cape Breton University professor isn’t afraid of making mistakes

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MAHER, PATRICKWhen I think about how we get to successful university teaching, the single item that immediately comes to mind is risk. Taking risks is about experimentation, and it’s about having the ability and willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. In my opinion, all university teachers should feel they can take risks and make mistakes. We know we have the academic freedom to research what we want, but, for some reason, many of us choose not to embrace the same autonomy in our teaching.

In my opinion, trying new things and facing the potential to make mistakes allows learning to take place. Learning to overcome challenges and navigate obstacles or hardships is a critical life skill, and one that can also enhance our pedagogical practice.

Maher is a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Click to read about all 10 winners.

As a university teacher, I read far too many papers that start by exposing “best practices.” What I wish I would see more of are ones that discuss “worst failures.” I think we could learn as much from the failings of our peers than their purportedly ongoing successes. For whatever reason, we are encultured in academia to keep our failures a secret until they magically shift toward success, and then we put those many failures behind us and never speak of them again.

So what do risk and making mistakes mean for university teachers, whether rookies or seasoned veterans, and what do they mean for students?

I’m not talking about unreasonable risks here, e.g., taking a biology class into a polar bear enclosure to see what predatory behaviour looks like first-hand. I’m talking about relatively small risks, such as choosing to have a large, first-year class use reflective journals as you might in a small, fourth-year course, or providing an assessment that values process as well as content—how you got to an answer, not just the right answer regurgitated on a final exam.

With this in mind, I’ll offer one of my own mistakes and explain how it helped me grow as an educator.

I’m well-known for my field courses—taking students down the Stikine River, to the Antarctic Peninsula, to Haida Gwaii. I see tremendous value in this format of experiential learning within higher education. It gets students out of the classroom and into places where they can learn with all of their senses. While these may seem like risky endeavours to some educators, they were well within my comfort zone. However, given my expertise in outdoor education, I did find myself facing tremendous risk the first time I taught online. There was no amazing environment, no person-to-person connection, just cyberspace. The first time I taught online, my usual approaches didn’t work. I couldn’t figure out how to connect students as a community and make them care as much about the subject. As a result, that first year, my online course felt static and non-personal. Was it a mistake to attempt this new mode of teaching? I don’t think so, but I made many mistakes and tried to learn from them. Each subsequent year, I’ve added more community-building activities and opportunities for students to develop a sense of place in their own local areas. Now, students are encouraged to introduce themselves with videos in Week 1. They’re told to bring in real-life examples they find in the news and discuss those on the discussion board. I also try to bring in real-time guest speakers from the places we discuss. Technology advances such as Illuminate and Skype have helped me transition my virtual classroom to be more like my field courses. It’s been a difficult road, but now, a guy who started out by being a great facilitator from the stern of a canoe is working on developing a MOOC (massive open online course).

And what does this mean for students? First, I hope it means they can accept a professor who takes some risks, and that they are inspired to learn by witnessing someone deeply engaged in continuous learning himself. As students, I hope they embrace risk as motivating rather than scary, and that they become comfortable identifying and discussing their educative mistakes. My advice to students: Take a few small risks in your university life. As a science student, take a creative writing class. As a business student, take a class in Indigenous Studies. You’ll probably make mistakes in these classes, you’ll be outside your comfort zone, but you’ll grow a lot more as a result.

Pat Maher is an associate professor of Community Studies at Cape Breton University.