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A Legacy of Continuous Improvement

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

David Warnock was retiring after a 35-year teaching career. His teaching skills were legendary. Knowing he would be hard to replace, his department chair asked David to mentor some of the junior faculty who would take over his courses. The junior faculty members sat in on David’s classes and then sat down with him for a short debriefing conversation about his instructional decisions. The junior faculty were overwhelmed by the strategy and thought Warnock gave to each class session.

One of the debriefing conversations with a new faculty member, Cynthia Kasson, was especially revealing.

David: Cynthia, I want to give you this flash drive now that you have been through the last class. It has my reflections for every class I’ve taught on this subject for the past 35 years.

Cynthia:  Wow. I can’t wait to review them. But what do you mean by a reflection on each class?

David: Soon after each class session, I sit down and capture my thoughts on how that session went. I use these reflections to make sure that every class I teach is better than previous classes on the same subject. I try to capture specific improvements I want to make.

Cynthia: WOW!! You’re really serious about teaching. Tell me what you did in preparation for today.

David: I went over my reflections for the past 2-3 semesters I taught this class in order to make sure I made improvements.

Cynthia: I’m really impressed. But we’re only required to review our classes at the end of the semester. So, why do you do this after every class session?

David: It’s something I learned from my father. He was a renowned general surgeon. After every surgery, he would write down his thoughts on what he could do to improve his surgical practices. How would you like to have a surgeon operate on you who only reviewed their surgical practices every three months?

Cynthia: I can understand why a surgeon would need to do this, but isn’t it overkill for a college professor?

David: Think about the implications of what you just said. When we teach a topic we hope that what we teach will last in that student’s mind for a lifetime. How are the consequences of what we are doing any different from those of a surgeon? While we may not have life or death consequences, the impact of inadequate teaching can impact a person in many serious ways.

Cynthia: I understand your analogy, but no one thinks of teaching the way they think of surgery.

David: And that’s a problem we created for ourselves. We don’t think of our professional work as does a surgeon. In fact, we are both creating a tremendous impact on the lives of those we serve.

Continuous improvement of teaching practices is an on-going process that requires timely reflections about what worked and what could be improved. There are no short cuts to on-going improvements in how we teach. Writing up your reflections soon after a session is a key step. (You can see an example of an instructor’s reflections here). The same approach could be taken with helping students develop their own skills. Requiring students to develop a practice of self-reflection that focuses on areas of success and areas for improvement can be a wonderful way to support their skill development.

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“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  – Anne Frank

This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons.