Some university teaching practices are held sacred, but perhaps college professors can learn from progressive teaching tactics of K-12 classrooms.

Case in point: Joshua Spodek who attended EduCon, a conference designed for K-12 educators mostly out of curiosity, left the weekend committed to revamping a New York University graduate level business course using what he learned about the tenets of inquiry-based learning. Educators at the conference helped him think through how it would work and pointed out how well suited his class would be for inquiry — for one primary reason: His students pay money to take courses they have already expressed interest in learning.

“As I heard more people talking, I realized that [an inquiry] style of teaching would be more useful to me than the traditional style,” Spodek said. He’d originally prepared to lead the entrepreneurial marketing and sales class the way many professors do; he sat down and figured out what he wanted students to know, put that information in a specific order and mapped out how he’d teach the content to them. He planned on giving them homework to make sure they were understanding the information he fed them and he would test them to make sure they were doing the work.

“It takes a lot of work because I have to anticipate all their questions,” Spodek said. As a new professor, he was stressed out cramming to make sure he could be the authority on all the information he might need to know. “This way, I first have to think about what’s interesting to the student, about why they care about this,” he said.

Spodek scrapped his original plan. He spent much of the first class meeting getting to know his students and asking them to share about themselves with one another. Most came from outside the U.S. and had very different reasons for wanting to take the course. Since everything from that point forward would be based on peer collaboration and review, Spodek wanted to be sure each student knew where the others were coming from.

The first assignment was to sell an apple for the highest profit possible. Spodek learned from K-12 educators at the conference that it isn’t fair to throw students into an inquiry question without preparing them a little. As a class, they discussed strategies for selling an apple, and one student asked how she could sell something if she didn’t know why a person would want it. That’s when Spodek knew he’d made the right choice to teach with inquiry — students were asking the important questions they would need in real world sales. “This class isn’t just going to teach you the theory of doing it, I’m going to teach you how to do it,” he said.

It might seem obvious that business school classes should be taught based on projects, but they often aren’t. Even though students expect to leave the graduate program with a specific skill set that will get them a job in their field, many business courses don’t teach using real world, hands-on experiences, Spodek said. “When I went to business school, I had a couple of classes that were a little like this,” Spodek said. But most were lectures, case studies, homework, and maybe a little role playing.

“The idea is by the end of this, they’ll be able to do the marketing and sales part of an entrepreneurial start up,” Spodek said. He has encouraged students to work on their own ideas, projects they’d like to bring to market in the future.

Several weeks into the 15-week course, he’s getting good feedback from students. One student in her mid-twenties said it was the best class she’d ever taken because it was useful, not theoretical. Spodek isn’t using any tests; instead, students critique each others’ work and make improvements. The accountability is built into that review process and students are attentive because they are expected to participate.

The experiment has also drastically changed Spodek’s approach to teaching. “I’m a lot more engaged myself,” Spodek said. “Instead of worrying that all the information is comprehensive and thorough, I want them to know they can get that information, but the time in class is better used in an interactive way.”

Spodek is so excited about the experiment that he’s planning to retool all his courses to follow a more project-based, real-world style of inquiry that will have meaning to students. He’s got a lot more freedom than many K-12 teachers, but he’s still pleased that other faculty are beginning to take notice of his success.

Still, changing post-secondary teaching styles is an uphill battle. “College professors don’t learn how to teach, they learn their subject,” Spodek said. “So you teach how you were taught.”


Can University Professors Benefit from K-12 Progressive Teaching Tactics? 10 March,2014Katrina Schwartz

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  • Jenna Wisterly

    A lot of teachers are now using collaborative teaching techniques like creating focus groups and teams to engage students in education. Another advantage of such a strategy is to make students confident in their abilities to work independently. You can read an article on this topic at:

  • Doug

    Amen. I build software for secondary writing teachers and I see the thoughtfulness of them as they consider how they give feedback to improve writing. I see them own the process of closing the gap between the feedback they give and the feedback students use. When they use, they define their learning objectives for students in advance and then provide instructional feedback on those objectives. Too often, I used to hand an assignment to a professor with absolutely no idea what s/he was interested in reading or giving feedback on. Yet… they seemed to love writing their musings on my paper to rationalize their grading. For what? Might as well just put a grade on it and give it back faster.

  • Holli

    The closing sentence is one that I am sure many
    college faculty can relate too “College professors don’t learn how to teach,
    they learn their subject,” Spodek said. “So you teach how you were taught.”
    This is how the first few years are spent, teach how you were taught even if
    you hated it. I love the idea of project based learning and I am looking at a
    particular section of the course I teach to revamp and apply this to. One
    little section at a time, I can make positive changes to improve how I teach.

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  • LadyPack

    We in early childhood have been saying, for 40 years, that elementary schools should be incorporating the ideas of preschools like Reggio Emilia and the constructivist approach into their classrooms. I’ve always believed that all education should be about kids’ interests and building on them, focusing on exploring and inquiry, collaboration, and dialogue. So, in a sense, we might say that these ideas for college teaching originate in the very early years, when children are natural scientists and artists and their teachers are their co-researchers.

  • I’ve recently returned to the K12 system after 10 years in higher ed and am struck once again by the quality of methodology and creativity among teachers compared to what I saw at the university level. There is indeed a lot to learn from the professional teachers!

  • John Hollingsworth

    A number of years ago I taught a senior level Sociology class at our high school. I found a great college text to use for the class. I opened up the teachers/professors companion to the book and started to read the author’s suggestions for teaching the class. There was a section dedicated to convincing professors to use “group work” in class to help students learn. We had been using “group work” in class for years at the high school. It told professors to not be afraid to try new things in class. Wow. Now as an administrator that evaluates high school teachers. If I observe a teacher just lecturing their class. They get a poor eval. We need to have our teachers engage the students in their learning. Great article

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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