Good Teaching, Italian Style

Good teaching comes in many forms. Most of the time, I focus on good biology teaching, but on a recent trip to Italy I got to expand my horizons.

In May, three colleagues and I were faculty leaders for a 54-student trip to Italy, where the University of Oklahoma has a link to branch campus in Arezzo. The class was a 3-week whirlwind that combined art, leadership, and activism with trips to Cortona, Florence, Siena, and Rome. Although we were faculty “leaders,” other people did the actual teaching, and we got to watch the class sessions from the sidelines.

Some of the classes were about art history. For me, this subject conjures up images of the forced memorization of innumerable facts, such as the title, artist, and date for hundreds of paintings. Students sit in a classroom, listen to a lecture, and see dozens of paintings projected on a screen. But I learned in Italy that it doesn’t have to be that way. We had the good fortune to visit churches and museums, so we got to see the art for ourselves. (Did you know that Michaelangelo’s David is actually huge? I didn’t!) But, even more importantly, we had a teacher who is skilled at helping his audience learn.

Photo of class in Florence

Kirk Duclaux orients the class to Florence, Italy.

Our class was large, so we often had to be split into two or more groups for tours. If you were lucky, your guide was one of our teachers, Kirk Duclaux; if you weren’t so lucky, you got some other tour guide. Even though the other guides clearly knew their stuff, some students would eventually drift away and join Kirk’s group instead. Why? I think that much of the explanation comes down to good, fundamental teaching.

Our run-of-the-mill tour guides delivered information — lots of it — but did not help us differentiate between trivia and important concepts, so it was tempting to tune out. They told us facts about specific paintings but did not emphasize the greater social, political, or economic context of the art. Kirk attracted our students by being, quite simply, a better teacher. Using much of the same information, he used his voice to help us know what was really important and what was simply a “fun fact.” He used our students as models to help illustrate some of the concepts he was trying to teach. He immersed his audience in the subject and helped us understand what was happening in each artist’s life, in art, and in the world at large when the piece was created. Rather than memorizing isolated facts, we understood the context, which kindled interest and retention.

Do you see the connection with biology? Many students enter our classes thinking that biology means the forced memorization of innumerable facts — the function of this organelle, the name of that enzyme, the order of these reactions, and so on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can be “tour guides” in the massive “museum” of biology. To do our jobs well, it is up to us to effectively set the context for the topic we’re teaching and to help students understand why it matters and how it fits into the big picture. If we can do that, then students will find that learning biology is much more enjoyable and meaningful than it is if they try to memorize fact after fact.

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