Michael Bassis

President Emeritus, Westminster College, Salt Lake City
Served from 2002-2012

Critical, Analytical, and Integrative Thinking Reflection

Trying to Be a Great Teacher

As a professor, I wanted to be the kind of teacher who inspired students, who communicated a passion for the subject and got students excited about it as a result. I worked hard to make my courses “captivating.” I used the morning headlines to illustrate different concepts; I shared aspects of my personal life to show the relevance of the material the students were learning; I organized classroom discussions and debates and I encouraged students to ask challenging questions and to share their own insights.
 

But in the final analysis, there were certain pieces of information that students had to know, concepts they needed to learn, and theories they needed to understand. In short, there was material that had to be covered. The only way I knew how to do that was to stick to the fundamentals: give lectures, assign readings, develop assignments and, finally, have students write papers and take tests so I could give each of them a grade.  
 
I was very diligent about all those tasks. But despite good teaching evaluations from students and colleagues, I knew what I was doing wasn’t generating the kind of student engagement I had hoped for. So I worked hard to become more effective. I talked with colleagues who were struggling with the same issues. I attended workshops on pedagogy. I read the latest research on how people learn. I even tried to look at how I learned best.
 
Looking Within for Answers
 
As I examined my own experience as a student, I was surprised to discover that not much of my learning happened in a classroom. I remembered being stunned after my first year of teaching when I found that I had learned twice as much about my discipline in that one year as I had learned in four years of graduate school. What’s the lesson I should take away from that? Could it be that I don’t learn as much when someone is trying to teach me as I do when I am learning on my own? But even if that was true for me, it couldn’t be true for my students as well. I wasn’t prepared to consider the possibility that the harder I try to teach them, the more difficult I might be making it for them to learn.
 
When I think about how one learns to be an effective administrator, the same observations emerge. In my own case, no one taught me how to be a college president. Whatever I have learned I learned on my own. Yes, I read all the books on the topic, but I now understand that I learn best when I take the time to reflect on my day-to-day experiences, to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and then to apply what I learned the next time around. In effect, I learned through a lot of trial and error, often interpreted using the insights found in the material I had read, as I slowly pieced together strategies that worked for me. 
 
The Pieces Start to Come Together
 
It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s, almost a decade before I came to Westminster, that I learned that what I had been observing in my own experiences as a student, a teacher and an administrator was, for the first time, being discussed by others within higher education. What I had described as the way I learn best was now being described as a paradigm shift from teaching to learning (Barr and Tagg, 1995). I developed the schematic below to help me when I try to explain the differences between these paradigms to others.
 
 
 

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The ARTIFACT I have chosen to illustrate my critical thinking skills is an essay I wrote that describes how this paradigm shift has begun to transform the educational experience at Westminster. 
 
We say that critical thinking "includes both analytical and integrative components. Critical thinkers demonstrate the ability to accurately identify a problem, question, or issue, and find information relevant to that issue. They analyze assumptions, implications, and conclusions, and support claims with evidence. They make connections between disparate sources of information and integrate other perspectives and positions into their own thinking. They revise their own thinking in response to convincing evidence and argument."
 
 
"There is another important paradigm shift underway that could well transform our k-12 system. It's described by Ken Robinson in this extraordinary video."
 
 
The essay I wrote demonstrates most of those skills (defined in more detail in the rubric linked at the bottom of the page). It describes how I identified an issue - learning; collected information on various practices related to that issue; explored the implications of those practices; made connections among those implications and synthesized those various pieces into a coherent position. The essay goes on to describe what the faculty and staff of the college have been able to do, at my urging and under my guidance, to change the paradigm of the college from teaching to learning.
 
How My Thinking has Evolved
 
The essay does not, however, illustrate my ability to revise my thinking in response to convincing evidence and argument. So here are some ways that I have revised my thinking about the issues of teaching and learning I explored in the essay. 
 
While I continue to believe that the learning paradigm produces learning which is “deeper, richer, and more useful,” I also recognize that, in many situations, the teaching paradigm remains an essential element of education. In certain fields, there are facts, concepts and theories which are, in a sense, prerequisites for further learning. Students need to master them before they can begin their own explorations and experiments. I did not emphasize that enough in the essay. 

I also did not spend enough time talking about the potential for technology to enable the shift from teaching to learning. When I discussed the way a Westminster chemistry professor helped students learn by using computer simulations, I touched on the role technology can play.  But I believe technology has the potential to make obsolete much of what used to happen in a traditional course. The web now provides students with access to information about every conceivable thing, and provides it anywhere, at any time. That, in turn, increases the need for students to develop the ability to evaluate the quality of the information they access. In addition to credible information, the web is full of half-baked ideas, nonsensical “explanations” and expansive claims which are based on unreliable evidence. As students and citizens turn to the web for information, it is essential that they develop the ability to critically evaluate rather than simply accept the “information” they find.
 
The essay reflects, as well, my competitive nature. I want Westminster to be among the first colleges to shift from the teaching to the learning paradigm. Once we begin to deliver more and better learning at a lower cost, we can help other schools learn how to do the same. 

Finally, while the essay acknowledged that “change is not easy,” and correctly reported that some faculty were uncomfortable with the learning paradigm, I did not acknowledge the fact that even faculty who had been “converted” to an emphasis on learning didn’t find it easy to implement the concept in their courses. To facilitate the shift from teaching to learning, we have had to help interested faculty and staff modify their perspectives and their approaches. We have sent them to national conferences and asked them share what they learned with their colleagues. We have formed The Learning Coalition to encourage conversations between peers on campus about promising efforts to promote student learning. And we have conducted interactive workshops on the topic for all interested faculty and staff. It has been an ongoing and elaborate process, but we are making progress. I simply did not recognize how hard it would be or how long it would take.

Click HERE to access the interactive rubric and evaluate my work.

Michael Bassis, President Westminster College, Utah
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