National Writing Project

Iowa Teachers Focus on the 'How' of Teaching

By: Art Peterson
Date: February 18, 2010

Summary: Iowa Writing Project leader Barbara Turnwall has spent almost a decade—through her Pedagogy Project—helping faculty at Northwestern College explore and reflect on how their students learn rather than on their own performance in the classroom.


Remember when you were a college student? Consider the class you rushed to with the greatest enthusiasm. Thinking back, what do you remember, the content of the course or the performance of the charismatic lecturer?

For most of us, it's the latter. And that's probably not a good thing. A good teacher needs to be more than a good actor with a lot of interesting information.

It took Northwestern College (Iowa) English professor Michael Kensak more than a while to understand this. He says, "An Ivy League education had left me in awe of my professors, and I wanted to be just as impressive. After five years in the classroom, I was patting myself on the back for my performance."

However, Kensak's self-congratulation ended abruptly the day he enrolled in Barbara Turnwall's Pedagogy Project.

In 2001 Turnwall, an assistant professor at Northwestern, founded the Project with the support and assistance of the Iowa Writing Project and Northwestern College. The goal of the project has been to build a faculty community that encourages exploration and reflection on the "how" of teaching—on how students best learn—rather than on a single-minded concentration on what is taught.

Turnwall, the 2009 recipient of the Iowa Council of Teachers of English Distinguished Service Award , had long-time concerns about the nuts and bolts of good teaching. In 1966, after one year of teaching high school, she came to Northwestern, where she faced four sections of composition and literature, each with well over 30 students.

"At Northwestern, as on most campuses," she says, "there was no talk of pedagogy; I was on my own to develop as a teacher. Even when I was a member of the Faculty Development Committee in the 1990s, it was more a social committee that had little concern for pedagogy."

Since I started teaching less, my students have been learning more.

Experimenting with New Strategies

Turnwall attributes the awakening of her dedication to pedagogy to her 1988 participation in the Iowa Writing Project (IWP) Summer Institute.

"I remember saying to my friend and colleague Patti Thayer, I must take this opportunity for professional development back to campus. Although I didn't know when or how I would accomplish this, it would become my calling."

She became the IWP local site director and offered the first of many inservice workshops beginning in 1991. While these workshops drew educators from the local community, they did not attract teachers from Northwestern in the numbers she had hoped.

Then finally in 2001, with the help of Jim Davis, director of the Iowa Writing Project, and a $5,000 minigrant from Northwestern, Turnwall came up with a recipe that worked: the Pedagogy Project. Each year since then Northwestern teachers who participate in the project—the roll of participants now numbers more than 70—meet to reflect on and discuss their teaching practice and to experiment with new strategies in their classrooms.

The project's program is no one-shot professional development. The process begins with a summer workshop, then monthly meetings during the school year, and finally a spring follow-up workshop. A guiding text on this journey has been Donald M. Finkel's Teaching with Your Mouth Shut , the title of which is a succinct expression of the pedagogical place these teachers are aiming to get to.

Immersed in intense journaling and discussion in response to Finkel's text, teachers have come to understand John Dewey's assertion—which Finkel propagates—"No thought or idea [as opposed to a fact] can possibly be conveyed from one person to another."

This understanding has led participants in the Pedagogy Project to give serious attention to Finkel's ideas for organizing a college classroom: A course can be organized around a series of questions; a class can become an open-ended seminar; student writings can be treated as classroom texts; professors can team teach a course, acting as intellectual colleagues engaged with the students in inquiry.

All of this is for the purpose of helping students become autonomous, self-reliant, and independent of mind. The student and the teacher become equal participants in the learning equation.

Davis, who has worked closely with Turnwall from the beginning of the project, notes that when college teachers start studying their teaching they begin to "make space for the learners' language. We begin to realize that just because we know what we are saying does not mean we know what our students are thinking."

Listeners, Not Experts

Turnwall has figured out several reasons why the Pedagogy Project has been such a success. For one, while the Pedagogy Project has reached a "critical mass" of faculty in this small college of 1,200 students, Turnwall limits participation to six to ten cross-disciplinary participants each session, making for a collegial intimacy.

The student and the teacher become equal participants in the learning equation.

She also sees the year-long immersion in the project as a factor in its success. "Significant change in practice takes time," Turnwall says.

Other attributes of the project's success:

  • As with the writing project, facilitators do not present themselves as experts whose practice should be emulated. They are listeners.
  • The Pedagogy Project is not related to any sort of evaluation of faculty members.
  • Participants receive a stipend. The stipend signals that the administration values their work and it keeps participants accountable.

Tom Truesdell, who directs the college writing center, has witnessed the project's effect not only on his own teaching, but on the Northwestern faculty. "I was able to focus on ways faculty members in various disciplines could integrate writing more effectively in their classrooms. The project is effective because it enables faculty across disciplines to talk abut the questions they have and challenges they face regarding writing."

Kensak, the Ivy League transplant, says of reading Finkel, "It hit me like Jesus's rebuke to the wealthy man. I saw how focusing on my teaching had blinded me to my students' learning. I shifted the center of the classroom from my stage to my students. Since I started teaching less, my students have been learning more."

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