Convergent Teaching: A Q&A with Anna Neumann and Aaron Pallas

Anna NeumannIn their new book, Convergent Teaching: Tools to Spark Deeper Learning in College (coming fall 2019), Drs. Anna Neumann and Aaron M. Pallas, professors at Teachers College, Columbia University, examine an idea they call convergent teaching, which looks holistically at the process of learning. Under this approach, all teaching must pay attention to several things all at once, including students’ prior knowledge, the subject matter, and the social and emotional context. The book afforded Neumann and Pallas a new opportunity to collaborate after more than 30 years of partnership. Below, they provide a glimpse into the personal and professional experiences that inform their work.

How did your personal experiences in education shape your career in research and teaching? 

AN: I was born in Israel to two Holocaust survivors, neither of whom had much formal education; we immigrated Aaron Pallasto the United States when I was six years old. I grew up in Brownsville, Texas, with much of my time spent in a store my parents managed six blocks from the Mexican border. I lived in a world of multiple languages and cultures, where my parents spoke to one another in Yiddish, my mother kept the books in Romanian and spoke Spanish to our customers, and I learned English in school. School was a way for my sister and me to make sense of who we were and to imagine a possible life in America, still connected to our inescapable past. I wanted this sense of possibility and agency for others living on the border as much as for me, and that’s what drew me to teaching, as a way to support learning. More to the point: Learning was my personal lifeline; I wanted the same for others—for me, that meant teaching. It also meant research on teaching toward improving and enriching it.

AMP: I fell for a familiar stereotype as a doctoral student in sociology. Students had either research assistantships or teaching assistantships, and the research assistantships paid better. Also, I saw them as a route to publishing, which I—and the faculty in my graduate program—viewed as central to being a successful professor. So I actively avoided teaching and invested all of my time and energy in becoming a good researcher. When I became an assistant professor, surprise! All of a sudden, I was expected to teach, and I had no preparation for it. I muddled through. I was slow to discover teaching and learning as objects of inquiry, in spite of the fact I, and many of my professional colleagues, rely so heavily on student test scores as indicators of school performance and predictors of individuals’ socioeconomic success. My work on teaching and learning has informed my research on K-12 school policy, teacher evaluation, and schooling through the life course.

The title of your forthcoming book is Convergent Teaching: Tools to Spark Deeper Learning in College. What is convergent teaching?

AMP: We see college as someone learning something in particular, namely subject matter. You could approach the teaching and learning of subject matter in a way that subtracts out students and their attributes or ignores the contexts, including cultures, in which the teaching and learning occur. That misses far too much that matters to students’ learning.

Our first view of convergent teaching is that teachers must attend to subject matter, students, and context simultaneously. This involves targeting the big ideas to be taught; surfacing students’ relevant prior knowledge, derived from their personal lives, cultures, and prior academic experiences; and then navigating the spaces between that prior knowledge and the desired learning. Our second view of convergent teaching looks at how college teachers manage the convergence of cognition, emotion, and identity, all of which can come into play when there’s distance, and sometimes dissonance, between students’ prior knowledge and the intellectual places they are headed.

What surprised or challenged your thinking on college teaching as part of your research for the book? 

AN: I’ll name three: First, it became plain that the current higher education reform agenda fails to speak to teaching, though it’s at the heart of what colleges and universities do, for students and society at large. Second, we were surprised as to how few college teachers are given the opportunity to improve their teaching. Many tenure-track faculty have access to teaching development resources. But how often do the rapidly growing numbers of adjunct and other contingent faculty have the same? Third, we were challenged to think through how to represent the complexity of college teaching. Our notion of convergent teaching requires college teachers to pay attention to several things simultaneously—core subject-matter ideas, students’ prior knowledge, the contexts in which teachers and students come together, emotions that spark as these pieces collide. How do you grasp, much less articulate, the many forms that teaching, broadly viewed, can take?

What motivated you to write this book together? Can you share some of the professional and personal history that went into this work?

AMP: Anna and I were married three months before we joined the faculty of the College of Education at Michigan State University in 1990. Moving to MSU, which in the 1980s and 1990s was a real center of gravity of research on K-12 teaching and learning, opened our eyes to new ways of thinking. I’m a sociologist of education, and Anna’s a scholar of higher education. Neither of our fields has given teaching, and its relationship to learning, its due. We found common ground at MSU and began co-teaching and occasionally writing papers together on topics such as Total Quality Management in education, doctoral research training, and learning to become a researcher in the early faculty career. But this is our first book together, though we each have authored or co-authored others. We’ve learned that our interests and expertise are complementary, and this topic grabbed our attention. I joke that writing a book together is the true test of a marriage.

Is there any single takeaway that you want readers—particularly those who are faculty, faculty developers, or administrators—to have after reading the book?

AN: Teaching has always been central to higher education, and despite some of the critical commentaries on technology and the future of higher education, it’s here to stay. But it is easy to take college teaching for granted because every college experience includes it. Further, who among us has not been taught? We want our readers to appreciate the centrality of teaching to higher education and to understand that good college teaching need not be left to chance. Teachers can work at making it better. Institutions of higher education can craft policies and practices that recognize, reward, and support good teaching, and new ways for their faculty to work on getting even better. We hope the book will provide college teachers, and those who work with them, a vision that enables both.

Aaron M. Pallas is a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has devoted the bulk of his career to the study of how schools sort students, especially the relationship between school organization and sorting processes and the linkages among schooling, learning, and the human life course.

Anna Neumann is a professor of higher education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She conducts research on teaching in urban colleges and universities with an eye toward improving first-generation college students’ subject-matter learning. 

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