Less is More: A Journey to Simplify and Focus Through Transforming Pedagogy // written by Paige Haber-Curran, Ph.D.

ACPAAdmin/ February 13, 2020/ Issue 2 – Winter 2020

Paige Haber-Curran, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Texas State University

I grew up in the mountains, and on hikes, my brother and I panned for gold in the clear and frigid creeks. As we filled the sieve with contents of the creek bed, it was difficult to distinguish the materials. As we shook the sieve back and forth, sifting the contents, the dirt and sediments fell through the mesh leaving behind large sparkling pieces of gold (or fool’s gold). Those were the pieces we put in our pockets and added to our collection. As I reflect on the 15 years in which I have taught in higher education, I see those large sparkling pieces of gold as a powerful metaphor for my journey to simplify and focus. 

A Need to Find My Authentic Teacher Self

Twelve years ago, I completed my first semester of teaching my own courses, the first two courses I taught without a prescribed structure or pre-set curriculum. As the semester came to a close I felt many of the same emotions that I felt after my previous teaching experiences – relief the semester was over, satisfaction about the contents, and uncertainty about if I did my job well. Some students enthusiastically engaged in the class, but there were a handful who I lost in the process, who did not fully engage with the curriculum or with me, and who would soon forget the class. That was normal and to be expected, right? Sure, there will be students who, no matter how hard we try, will never be engaged, right? My teaching evaluations were fine – not alarmingly bad but also not report-card-on-the-fridge worthy. I knew deep down that I could do better and I needed to do better; now that I was in the driver’s seat I owed it to myself and, more importantly, to the students to do better.

The previous courses I had taught were coordinated through student affairs divisions and were structured to mirror the other sections in curriculum, structure, and flow. Although the packaged nature of the courses helped acculturate me into the world of college teaching, the socialization also reinforced many of the mental models I had come to believe about college teaching. I knew there could be more to teaching and more to the teacher-student relationship than had been modeled and reinforced for me through my own undergraduate education. I needed to find my authentic self as a teacher.

I was teaching in a department of leadership studies, and one of the foundational concepts in the field is Burns’ (1978) transforming leadership, an understanding of leadership in which the leader and followers help elevate each other to higher levels of motivation and morale. Burns compares transforming leadership to transactional leadership, characterized by formal authority and the exchange of rewards for the outcomes and loyalty of followers. Transactional leadership is not bad or malicious leadership (although it can be), but it has limitations. As I reflected on my teaching, I realized I was teaching in a way comparable to Burns’ transactional leadership. I was checking the boxes of being a professor: having a clear syllabus, ensuring class sessions were organized and structured, incorporating current content, developing informative and easy-to-read PowerPoint slides, and including classroom activities. Although my teaching was not bad, it was not transforming. 

Less is More

As I was seeking to find my authentic teacher self I was also involved as a facilitator for LeaderShape, a six-day leadership institute for students. A fellow facilitator shared and modeled for me the philosophy of less is more in the context of teaching and facilitating. I observed the facilitator meaningfully connect with students. I saw attentive students engaged with both the curriculum and the facilitator, and I knew the students were learning in a meaningful way. The facilitator was showing up authentically, meeting the students where they were, and helping students digest and understand the material. At times the facilitator did not cover all of the curriculum provided in the curriculum manual, but the students still got out what they were meant to from the lesson. In fact, they seemed to be achieving greater, deeper learning. 

The opportunity to learn from this facilitator began my process of shedding my mental models of teaching and learning and gave me permission and motivation to approach my teaching differently. My course syllabi and PowerPoint presentations shrunk in length. My classes became less structured and planned, and in class I talked less and listened more. I focused on what was most important, and I allowed time and space to focus in depth and foster a sense of inquiry.  I tried new approaches that put more responsibility on the students. I gradually let go of the control that, in many ways, provided me comfort and that I thought was inherent in the role of teacher. Students were more engaged and were learning more (as was I). Additionally, I became less anxious about teaching. Interestingly I seemed to gain more authority by making these changes, not through the formal authority granted to me with the instructor title, but through the informal authority that comes from respect and connection (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). It is incredible just how much a little loosening-of-the-grip can transform a course. 

The following year I was introduced to Singham’s (2007) Death to the Syllabus! during a conference session on innovative approaches to teaching. Singham (2007) encouraged faculty to challenge the traditional course syllabus and controlling classroom, inviting students to play a role in deciding what constitutes meaningful learning and how learning can be demonstrated and assessed. The article spoke to me and terrified me at the same time. It turned my mental model of teaching, which was already slightly tipped to the side, completely upside down. I decided to take a risk and jump in head first. The next semester I taught the leadership minor capstone course and almost completely abandoned the course syllabus, only including the university mandated components. I invited students into the driver’s seat with me. I went out on a limb and into unknown territory, and the results were incredible. Students overwhelming expressed the value of the course, sharing how it challenged them in new and different ways and resulted in more meaningful learning and engagement than any other college course. They described their experiences as a different and “more real” way of learning that was transforming not only how they thought about the subject, but also how they came to understand themselves, others, and the world in which they were a part (Haber-Curran & Tillapaugh, 2013). See published research on the course for additional information (Haber-Curran & Tillapaugh, 2013, 2015; Tillapaugh & Haber-Curran, 2013). 

Reframing Rigor

I worried that this less is more approach could mean less rigor. Yet, through this process I came to a new understanding of rigor. Rigor is not the amount of information students memorize, the amount of time they study for an exam, the length of a research paper, or the weed out reputation of a course. Instead, it is about grappling with, thinking critically about, integrating, and applying concepts to one’s life or other contexts. It is about developing new ways of thinking and viewing the world. It is about engaging in discourse and problem solving with others. 

As I engage in the process of sifting for gold to identify and focus on what I believe is most significant, I encourage students to do the same. As an example, for each assigned chapter or article in most of my courses, students complete a reading note card. On the note card students write: (a) three key points from the reading; (b) a significant sentence/quote from the reading that they could discuss; and (c) a critical thought or question they had as a result of the reading. This reading note card activity challenges students to critically read and to determine what they believe to be most crucial, which naturally often differs by student. In class the note cards help provide meaningful talking points to guide discussion about the readings and to dig deep in grappling with the content. I find this approach to be a thoughtful alternative to the pop quiz approach, which could be considered by some to demonstrate rigor, that was modeled in many courses in which I was a student. Rather than cramming more or testing more to seek rigor, I facilitate opportunities for students to focus, think, and reflect more.     

The Journey is Ongoing

Last year I served as a Fulbright Scholar in Austria. I was anxious about teaching new courses to new students in a new and foreign environment. I noticed myself seeking comfort by cycling back to excess structure, control, and content. It was as if I was trying to hide behind the excess, assuming it would protect me. I fought those ingrained instincts to add structure and control in order to decrease uncertainty and instead reminded myself to simplify and focus. I pared down my compilation of topics, readings, assignments, and in-class exercises to include what could realistically and comfortably fit into a semester. I am glad I pared down the courses, as the foreign context required me to be even more in tune with the students and adaptable to their learning process. In other words, the experience challenged me more than ever to simplify, focus, and keep sifting through the sediment to surface the gold.

The process to simplify and focus is a lifelong journey for me. It is a journey of unlearning much of what has been imprinted on me on what it means to teach and learn. It is a journey of reconditioning my thought process and my pedagogies. It is a journey of slowing down and identifying what is most important. This fall I began my ninth year teaching in a student affairs graduate preparation program. As I prepare for each semester I focus in on the large, sparkling pieces of gold to guide the course, and I do my best to leave space rather than fill the space between those pieces of gold with pebbles and sediment. I have found in doing so that the space often gets filled with learning even more valuable than the gold. 

Reflection Questions

  1. What mental models do you have about teaching and learning? What has informed these mental models? 
  2. Think about a course you teach, a workshop or session you present, or a training you lead. If you were to sift through all of the potential topics and concepts, what are the large, sparkling pieces of gold?  
  3. How do you feel when you think about loosening up structure and control when you are in the role of teacher or facilitator? Why do you believe you feel this way?  

Paige Haber-Curran is associate professor and program coordinator for the Student Affairs in Higher Education master’s program at Texas State University. Her research focuses on college student leadership, gender and leadership, and effective pedagogy. Paige has 15 years of higher education teaching experience in the areas of student affairs, college student leadership, intercultural competence, emotional intelligence, and organizational leadership.  

Acknowledgements: I acknowledge and thank Dr. Cheryl Getz and Dr. Dan Tillapaugh for their authentic support, guidance, and inspiration in this journey.

References

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York, NY: Harper and Row. 

Haber-Curran, P., & Tillapaugh, D. W. (2015). Student-centered transformative learning in leadership education: An examination of the teaching and learning process. Journal of Transformative Education, 13(1), 65-84. doi:10.1177/1541344614559947  

Haber-Curran, P., & Tillapaugh, D. W. (2013). Leadership learning through student-centered and inquiry-focused approaches to teaching adaptive leadership. Journal of Leadership Education, 12(1), 92-116. doi:10.12806/V12/I1/92

Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press. 

Singham, M. (2007). Death to the syllabus! Liberal Education, 93(4), 52-56. 

Tillapaugh, D. W., & Haber-Curran, P. (2013). At the intersection of leadership and learning: A self-study of using student-centered pedagogies in the classroom. Educational Action Research, 21(4), 519-531. doi:10.1080/09650792.2013.832345

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