On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001

Enthsiasm and Creativity in Institute Seminars

By William C. Gordon

President of the University of New Mexico

At the University of New Mexico, we believe that our Colleges of Education and Arts and Sciences should work in concert both to prepare new teachers and to provide professional development opportunities for the existing teachers in our state. We feel that such a collaboration is necessary to ensure that all of our K-12 teachers are at the cutting-edge of their disciplines in terms of both pedagogical approaches and strategies and their knowledge of important content areas.

Although several universities have attempted to more fully engage Arts and Sciences faculty in the preparation and development of teachers, one of the most successful programs of this kind has been the Yale-New Haven project. In this program Yale faculty are directly involved in promoting the professional development of teachers in the New Haven community, by developing and providing courses that are specifically designed to expand the understanding teachers have of key content areas. Knowing the success of this project and searching for mechanisms to involve our own Arts and Science faculty in teacher development efforts, a few years ago we took advantage of the opportunity to replicate this program in our own community.

It is hardly surprising that we made this decision. What has been surprising to me, however, is how enthusiastically our faculty have embraced this concept, and how creative our K-12 teachers have been in taking advantage of the opportunities these faculty have provided. Today I am convinced that the enthusiasm and creativity we have seen thus far has much to do with the kinds of course experiences we have offered to teachers in our community.

Since its creation, the Albuquerque Teachers Institute has never attempted to provide teachers with standard professional development courses that focus solely on content updates within specific disciplines. Thus, among our course offerings one is unlikely to find seminars with titles such as “Recent Advances in Chemistry” or “Modern Approaches to Literary Analysis.” Instead, our faculty have been encouraged to create “theme-based” seminars that bring together content and perspectives from a variety of disciplines all connected by a common topic. For example, one of the first seminars we offered to teachers was entitled “Archeoastronomy.” This course focused on the role of astronomy and astronomical phenomena in the lives of ancient peoples. However, within the context of that single course theme it was possible to explore scientific and mathematical principles, historical and cultural developments, and even literary devices and accounts.

By taking this multi-disciplinary approach in our seminars, we were able to achieve several results that have been critical to the success of our program. First of all, we have been able to attract exceptional faculty to the program, because of the opportunity it gives them to create a truly unique seminar experience. The fact that these courses depart so clearly from the more traditional “content-update” paradigm also creates greater interest among those teachers who are seeking professional development opportunities. Secondly, given the nature of these seminars, teachers from a variety of disciplines and grade levels can and do enroll in the same seminar. This brings to each seminar a diversity of perspectives, interests and approaches that clearly enriches and enlivens the learning environment, and increases the likelihood that our teachers will learn something new from each other.

Finally, the seminars, themselves, are models for how the most basic disciplinary principles can be brought to life by embedding them in an interesting and relevant context. These seminars also illustrate in convincing fashion how the true understanding of almost any problem depends on viewing that problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Of course, it is one thing to create a seminar experience that is stimulating and thought-provoking for the participants, but it is quite another to create an experience that truly impacts the way a teacher will teach. In this case, however, the most striking outcome of our program, thus far, has been the curriculum unit plans our teachers have produced — plans that they intend to use in their own classrooms. Invariably these lesson plans focus on the themes represented by the seminars themselves, but they are creatively tailored to each teacher’s grade level and discipline. The plans cover basic principles by linking them in a variety of fascinating ways to the course themes, and many successfully illustrate how various disciplines can converge to allow for a richer understanding of a topic area. Clearly, these are not plans designed to promote rote learning. They are plans that are intended to raise questions, that are designed to stimulate the natural curiosity that students have, and they are plans that make the process of learning more an adventure than a task.

Today, we still have a great deal of work to do in order to assess the impact of this program on student learning in the classroom. That, of course, is the only true test of how successful our approach has been. What we do know already, however, is that this program generates in our faculty and our teachers a true excitement about teaching and learning. And, if this excitement carries over into our K-12 classrooms, we believe that we will have achieved a goal that is well worth our time and effort.

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© 2001 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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