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Stop Calling College Teachers ‘Professors.’ Try ‘Cognitive Coaches,’ Says Goucher President


June 28, 2017


One problem with college teaching is that professors see themselves as, well, professing— declaring what they know and believe. That’s not how good teaching works, argues Jose Bowen, president of Goucher College.

The best teachers have more in common with fitness instructors, he argues. They motivate and guide their students to accomplish their goals.

Years ago Bowen coined the term “teaching naked,” meaning teaching without technology like PowerPoint. His latest book, “Teaching Naked Techniques: A Practical Guide to Designing Better Classes,” expands on his arguments and offers practical advice for instructors who want to rethink how they design their classes.

EdSurge recently sat down with Bowen at his office at the liberal arts college just outside of Baltimore, where he argued that improving college teaching is key to helping improve the political climate facing the country. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on iTunes (or your favorite podcast app).

EdSurge: Your book offers a broad critique of college instructors. It mentions that professors were not normal students in their own college experience, and so they often have trouble putting themselves in the positions of the students sitting it their classrooms. The professors were outliers—the kind of students who wanted to sit in the front and wanted to do everything for the class. But most students probably don’t feel like that. Could you talk a little bit more about this disconnect?

Bowen: As a faculty member myself, I am a member of the oddball club. I liked school so much, I’m still here. And that is unusual. Most students want to graduate, leave, and never come back. This is not their favorite place.

Since we’ve discovered that teaching is mostly about motivation, that matters because for faculty, motivation was usually not the primary problem. We were motivated, we did the extra reading, we understood, we were excited about Foucault, saying “Oh my god, I’ve always wanted to read this. This is fantastic.” We came to class prepared, we liked to participate. We were model students. Most of us.

But now we’ve had this whole paradigm shift from teaching to learning, from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side, which was the beginning of a revolution that really has to do with the brain—with cognition and behavioral science. We now understand much more about how the brain works and how learning works. As Terry Doyle says, “The one who does the work, does the learning.” So, as a teacher, I can’t do the work for you. You have to do the work. And the analogy they use for this is fitness. The fitness coach can’t exercise for you. Ultimately, only you can do that.

They’re the same model. A fitness coach is a fitness coach because he or she likes to exercise, and that’s why they’re all buff, right? They love the gym. You’re coming in, you probably don’t love the gym but you know you have to be there. What worked for them isn’t going to work for you.

But the analogy goes further. Just having more equipment and more knowledge isn’t necessarily more useful. This fitness coach knows about equipment, knows about your body but mostly they get paid because they’re motivators. What they’re paid to do is to know about you. What is it that motivates you? What do you really want to accomplish here? ‘Oh, you really want to fit into that prom dress?’ You will have to get on the bike and pedal faster. You will have to do more work if you really want to. The motivation is understanding you and what matters to you.

Great teaching is about the ability to break things down into steps. You’re an expert, you’ve put all the pieces together, but most people need practice at step one then step two, then a little bit of step three.

Of course the irony is that all the people who are really good at this are the video game designers. They are really good at breaking things down into problems. That place that they call the “pleasantly frustrating.” If something is too hard, you quit. If something is too easy, you also quit. Finding the right balance is the key, and the problem is that the key is different for every person. In a classroom, the best you can do is teach to the middle. A video game can be pleasantly frustrating for everybody simultaneously. That’s a very hard thing for us to do in a classroom of even five students because they’re five very different human beings.

The new book is about thinking about teaching as a design problem. The people we’re designing for are the people who are not like us.

Of course, with the book’s title, “Teaching Naked,” you’re talking about getting technology out of the classroom. But what’s wrong with having tech in the classroom?

First, people don’t multi-task. We’ve now been able to put this lie to bed that people can actually shop on Facebook and listen to your lecture and take good notes all simultaneously. The more distractions there are in class, the harder it is for people to concentrate, for people to learn.

But the other argument is that classroom teaching is always going to be more expensive. It’s just going to cost more to bring people together and to drive to campus, to park, to do all of that. So if all I’m going to do is replicate something that I could do equally well online, no one is going to pay the premium that we charge for online classes. As with any operation or organization, I want to maximize the value of the thing that costs the most. Face-to-face classroom time costs the most. It’s absolutely the most expensive thing that we do. During that time, I should prioritize the activities that have the most value but also those activities that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

It’s the same thing when you go to a meeting and some guy reads his PowerPoint. Especially if you’ve gone across the country to a convention where they’ve assembled all these people you want to talk to—and they line you up in a room and they read their PowerPoint. You think, well wait, why didn’t you send me the PowerPoint in advance? Let me read the PowerPoint, and then say “So has everybody read the PowerPoint? Now let’s have a discussion.”