Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

Stop Fighting the System

Now that I have your attention with my vague and slightly troubling title, maybe I should elaborate a bit. A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak as part of a panel on the concept of “systems thinking” in the academic world.  I probably should have declined the invitation, given my limited knowledge of the subject matter, but as they were in a pinch and my recruiter was pretty persuasive, I decided to participate, planning to listen more than I spoke. It turned out to be a wonderfully insightful experience, so I wanted to share a little of what I learned and how it might apply to our teaching development.


We all understand the basic concept of systems. They are the structures that build our world: the food chain or the water cycle, for example. Each component of the system works together, and no one component of the system is more valuable than any other. Of course, because we live in a society that promotes winning above all else, we tend to want to break systems apart to determine which piece is really the most important. If I were to show my 6 year old the food chain, and ask him which part he’d like to know more about, he’s wouldn’t choose the decomposer. He’d pick the apex predator because lions are way cooler than mushrooms!


Likewise, as adults, when we join a new work community, we immediately search for the lions. Indeed, many of us, maybe because we’ve spent our lives mastering our disciplines, don’t just look for the lions, we want to be the lions. Our societal obsession with earning the top prize diverts our attention from the big picture and from recognizing the elegance of systems that rely on all members (even those mushrooms) to thrive, and we begin to see our work as solitary and hierarchical rather than collaborative.  


In his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge explores systems thinking and the construction of successful teams. In doing so, he looks at four key elements: Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vison, and Team Learning (Senge244-306). Looking at Senge’s elements might help us understand the importance of systems thinking in the academic world, and how we can improve our teaching and (maybe) our departments and colleges by embracing the system.


When Senge discusses “personal mastery,” he does so imagining that most workers don’t ever develop personal mastery because as soon as they realize they’ll never become lions, they lose their incentive, give up on mastery, and work for a paycheck rather than personal fulfillment (258).  Faculty at GSU have already demonstrated the ability for “personal mastery,” dedicating time and energy to become masters in our fields. Our demonstration of “personal mastery” in our disciplines, though, doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire for “personal mastery” as it relates to our day-to-day work with the university. In fact, after years of study and preparation for a life in academia, many of us get here, look around, and wonder how we’ve managed to take a job that often relates so little to our areas of interest and expertise.


Part of the gap between what we are capable of and what we feel inspired to do comes from what Senge calls our “mental model.” The inimitable Dr. Harry Dangel, founding director of GSU’s Center for Teaching and Learning, once told me that he spent the first 20 years of his career never speaking about his teaching to anyone. The isolated, college professor was his “mental model.” He said that he and everyone around him just went on with their teaching pretending that they never struggled. He spoke with joy about finally deciding to share his problems and ideas with those around him, and I suspect he might say that sharing those teaching insights has been a very fulfilling part of his career from that time on.


The past year has made us all follow in Harry’s footsteps to re-examine our own “mental models” of the college professor. Some of us who never imagined that our teaching would involve online learning have found that we’re not only capable of it, but pretty darn good at it. Others may have found sharing assignments and grading strategies with colleagues to be invigorating. This re-examination is vital to our individual development as teachers, to the development of our system, and, Senge argues, to “personal mastery.”


While the insanity of this year may have encouraged us to be more open, our challenge now is to keep up the momentum. As things begin to return to normal, the temptation to revert to our old models could become overwhelming. Senge suggests that the act of “building a shared vision” by setting goals and determining group missions can keep us from going back to our quiet corners. No doubt this year has been difficult, but if you’ve enjoyed elements of what you’ve learned from your peer group or from CETLOE, now might be the time to suggest a Webex meeting with your group and set some goals for yourselves. These goals might be as small as touching base several times a semester to do some collaborative thinking and offer support, or they might be as big as determining a teaching concept you’d all like to master by the end of a semester and dividing the research among you. At a departmental level, you might build a shared vision around using some of the tools you all liked this year and developing assignments or assessment strategies based on your shared interests.


Your group can depend on this shared vision to engage in what Senge calls “team learning.” This concept relates back to the bigger picture of “systems thinking.” It doesn’t work unless everyone recognizes that there is no hierarchy in the system, only shared curiosity and dedication to achieving goals. The group members embrace “personal mastery,” challenge “mental models,” and work together to create a space where everyone has a strength and everyone compensates for each other’s weaknesses. Senge argues that creating such a space leads to more fulfilling work and better outcomes for every member of the system.


Even in the midst of chaos, if you’ve somehow managed to enjoy any of the work with teaching you’ve done this year, consider how you might continue mastering the new concepts you’ve learned and how you might use the connections you’ve made to create a supportive, engaging team to promote each other’s development and make your teaching more fulfilling. If you don’t have a team among your peers, remember that CETLOE offers many opportunities for you to meet faculty from outside your discipline who are also curious about teaching and ready to share ideas.

Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline : The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Rev. and updated., Doubleday/Currency, 2006.

jenniferhall • February 22, 2021

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