Ken Ward: A Teaching Philosophy
I find the seemingly boundless energy of my students inspiring. Because campus life is central to our careers as educators, we sometimes forget that what seems to us one of countless semesters is to our students one of precious few, a brief opportunity to explore a new topic in the safety of the classroom before being thrust out into the professional world. Even as they grapple with new ideas in their coursework, our students are celebrating newfound freedom and possibility. They sense their lives as stretching out before them. They are ready to learn. They are ready to explore. They are excited.
My primary objective as an educator is to guide and focus a student’s overflowing positive energy. Naturally, I am concerned with reaching course objectives and pushing each student toward mastery in whatever realm of media work they are interested in. But it is this abundant energy—a byproduct of the time in a student’s life and the collegial environment in which they are situated—that I am most concerned with, as it is by harnessing this boundless energy that students are helped to achieve their potential. My teaching philosophy, then, is directed toward helping students transform this energy into passion for their work as media professionals.
I broadly say media professionals because, having taught journalism, strategic communications, and public relations courses to students of all interests, motivations, and career goals, I find the students of the various concentrations are far more similar in their intellectual needs and professional desires than they are different. They are all driven by a passion for storytelling, a need to create, and a desire to improve the world around them. While my courses naturally focus on one or another concentration under the big tent of communication, each is filled with lessons and assignments that prepare students for media careers of all kinds.
To tap the full potential of my students, I pour a great deal of my own energy into crafting meticulously constructed courses that progress methodically from learning objectives to lessons to assignments to assessments, with clearly described grading criteria and classroom rules and detailed schedules. This is not a matter of control or a preoccupation with order but of uncertainty reduction, allowing students to free mental space for creative, critical thinking.
The result is an active and engaged classroom characterized by thoughtful discussion and focused exercises. I spend as little time preaching from the front of the room as possible. While I believe lectures play an important role in instruction, I keep them brief, typically around 20 minutes in a course session, and move quickly on to group work, class discussion, and simulations. My favorite role to play is that of moderator, helping students talk themselves through complex ideas and stumble upon their own insights rather than handing them my own. Of course, in many of the courses I frequently teach, such as multiplatform reporting, this approach is neither feasible nor fruitful. In such skills-oriented courses, I turn instead to assignments than challenge students to engage with diverse populations and in-class simulations that mimic real-world conditions. In editing, this may mean adapting for the web and digitally publishing a print news story. One of my favorite classroom activities, which I play with my reporting students at least once at the beginning of each semester, is a turn-based game in which teams write a breaking news story by interviewing witnesses and stakeholders (all played by me) independent of other teams, with each story turning out different depending on which sources a team interviewed and how teams arranged the facts. As a result, students better understand how the inclusion—or exclusion— of diverse sources and populations affects the strength of their reporting when they are later turned loose to find their own stories. Such activities engage students in meaningful ways and provide opportunities to apply their energy toward improving journalism at large.
My students know they can expect from me forthrightness, earnestness, and enthusiasm. As someone who passionately believes in the importance of free and responsible journalism, the power of creation, and the immense potential of students, I cannot help but allow my excitement to show in the classroom. But while my ebullience is apparent and has a positive effect on my classroom, it is complemented by a spirit of criticality and transparency that I strive to instill in my students. Anyone in my classroom is free to question any part of a course’s curriculum or an utterance I make, and, naturally, they frequently take advantage of this opportunity. For example, students in my editing courses routinely challenge the importance of learning the distinction between who and whom, which they find outmoded and irrelevant. My response—that there is a beauty to English when it is used properly, that we, the storytellers, need not degrade our use of language simply because others do so, and (most convincingly) that media organizations rate mastery of grammar, word use, and style as among the most important traits in a potential hire—allows students to set aside issues that would otherwise preoccupy them and instead focus on the task at hand. This attitude has led to stronger advisor-advisee relationships with students and much more energetic, productive classrooms.
My lessons are grounded in evidence-based practices culled from years in the classroom and reading books on pedagogy. Every session in each of my courses, for example, begins with a brief activity—often an ungraded quiz or writing prompt—to prime the parts of my students’ brains pertinent to the topic of the day. Course content is interleaved over the course of the semester, with previously learned concepts continually worked back into lessons and assignments to prevent them from being forgotten and to forge new connections among ideas. In all cases, lessons and assignments are designed to instill in students a growth mindset, helping them understand that they are capable of learning things they might think are too difficult to grasp or that toward which they are naturally disinclined. Perhaps most importantly, I explain all of the above to my students, helping them understand how they learn and the metacognitive skills necessary to teach themselves.
In the end, I have three ways of measuring the degree to which I have been successful as an educator. The first is to review how students performed on the course’s final assessment, which is typically a project but sometimes a test. Because I focus so heavily on developing assessments that uncover a student’s mastery of a course’s objectives, my final assessments give me a good sense of how well students learned what they were supposed to learn. Measuring my success in converting a student’s energy into passion for learning is trickier. It is best assessed by reflecting on the sorts of questions students are asking in class or by observing the number of students who routinely visit me in my office to discuss classes they took with me semesters ago. Finally, I measure success by reviewing the written comments provided by students on teaching evaluations. Nothing gives me more confidence as an educator than when students write that a course was difficult and that they were thankful it was hard because the challenge made them grapple with the course’s content in new ways.