More than 200 faculty and staff members attended this year's faculty retreat Feb. 5 to learn more about a skill many are familiar with in research, but not as knowledgeable about as it applies to teaching: collaboration.
Keynote speaker Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology and of education at Washington University in St. Louis, presented his ideas on collaborative teaching and innovation. His research on the subject is outlined in his books "Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration" and "Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation."
Sawyer talked about why some methods organizations use to generate creative ideas often fail.
One of the most common methods is brainstorming.
While its intentions are good, the process typically fails because of the way ideas come about. The discussions often go in one direction, and not everyone's ideas are heard, he said.
These group discussions violate Sawyer's rules for collaborative innovation: seek out remote associations, share ideas broadly and avoid fixation on one idea.
Darin Eastburn, a professor of crop sciences, said he's always looking for innovative ways to teach.
In academia, collaboration is emphasized with research - such as for grant applications and other efforts, but not often in teaching, he said.
"I like the message of collaboration," he said. "There's a lot of emphasis on individual accomplishments in academia."
Collaborative teaching efforts are not as common, however. Agriculture professors don't often get the chance to work together for teaching he said, although sometimes they'll teach a course together.
The collaborative efforts Sawyer encourages lead to what is known as "problem-based learning," a method that emphasizes delving into topics or issues.
Eastburn said he uses problem-based methods for some classes, but not others.
For example, in his course "Plants, Pathogens and People," he uses writing projects in which students are assigned a problem and have to find experts to research solutions.
Other courses might be better taught lecture-style, he said, but professors always look for new ways to fit the best teaching practices to the curriculum.
Sandy Goss-Lucas, a retired professor of psychology who still teaches at Illinois, said she prefers problem-based teaching to traditional lecture-style methods.
Traditional formats don't lead to retention, she said. Research shows, she said, that students can study a subject and learn enough of it to pass tests, but they don't remember anything they learned just months later.
Instead of standing at the front of the classroom with bulleted lists of ideas for students to take notes on, she prefers to break her classes up into small groups so students can research a subject and present it to their classmates.
"They have unique insight," she said. "They think of things I hadn't thought of before."
In fact, she'll take it a step further by giving her students an addressed envelope on the last day of class.
When they discover real-world examples of what they learned in her class, they're supposed to write them down and send them to her.
Students teaching their teachers is one aspect Sawyer teaches in his lectures: students and professors learning from one another.
Goss-Lucas' students teach her because they study so many different subjects, whereas she's used to studying mostly psychology.
"My students have incredibly rich insight," she said. "To not use them as a resource would be sinful."
She said Sawyer's talk reminded her of why she chose her career.
"It gets you excited about teaching again," she said.
The theme of this year's retreat was "Crosscurrents of Creativity in Teaching," and was sponsored by the Office of the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and the Office of Continuing Education.
Post-retreat reading groups and workshops will be conducted this semester. For more information, go to cte.illinois.edu.
To build on this year's retreat theme of creativity and innovation in teaching, the Center for Teaching Excellence is sponsoring reading groups to explore Keith Sawyer's "Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration." Several groups are under way. Those interested may sign up online.
- "Crossing Green Street to Take a Solar-powered House to Washington, D.C.," Mark Taylor, architecture, noon to 1 p.m. Feb. 23, 428 Armory.
- "Student Innovation and Creative Rights in the Classroom," Matthew Thibeault, music, noon to 1 p.m. Feb. 24, 428 Armory.
- "Establishing a Creative Baseline: 0 to 60 in a Foundation Design Course," Stephen Sears, landscape architecture, 4-5 p.m. March 4, 428 Armory.
- "Studio Thought: Teaching Strategies for Creative Thought and Critical Analysis," Laurie Hogin, art and design, 12-1:30 p.m., March 5, 428 Armory.
- "A Web-Based Course in Scientific Reasoning," Alfred Hubler, physics, 3:30-4:30 p.m. March 11, 428 Armory.
- "Empowering Student Creativity and Critical Thinking Through the Inquiry Process," Walter Hurley, animal sciences; Cheelan Bo-Linn, Center for Teaching Excellence, and Prasanta Kalita, agricultural and biological engineering, 3:30-5 p.m. April 15, 428 Armory.