- Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James M. Lang
Books of teaching advice and how-to instruction are not scarce. Resources for new teachers, experienced educators, and seasoned professors line the shelves of offices, bookstores, and publishers. James M. Lang's Small Teaching, however, offers something refreshingly necessary: teaching techniques ready to be used that very day, when class is starting in fifteen minutes.
James M. Lang has been teaching for many years and talked to teachers and professors about topics like course design, effective syllabi, and teaching your first course in a new field. Readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education are familiar with Lang's work; he publishes a monthly column there on several topics, including a more recent series following the release of his newest book on small changes one can make to their teaching to encourage more effective learning. Lang is a professor of British literature and the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College. He is the author of On Course: A Week-by-week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching and Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, among others, both about higher education and received with high praise. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, Lang's most recent book, veers away from the familiar volume about higher education geared toward systematic, high-level change and instead focuses on practical, incremental steps educators can take to the classroom to foster learning and critical thinking.
The concept of the book springs from the idea of "small ball" in the world of baseball: the game is not necessarily about having big stars that sometimes hit homeruns, but instead about doing whatever it takes to get on base and move the game forward. Small Teaching is a series of small-ball techniques to use in teaching that move classroom learning forward. Teaching is not always about huge, programmatic changes; it can also be about incremental modifications. Lang developed the idea while traveling and discussing bigger changes in academia and course design. Professors and teachers were excited about the possibilities his ideas presented, he claims, but would lose some of the inspiring motivation when they had nothing to implement for at least a few weeks when planning the next semester or year. As a result, Lang began researching and developing a series of incremental, immediate changes that could be applied the very next day in the classroom or consulted when needed as a refresher.
Small Teaching is broken down into three sections (knowledge, understanding, and inspiration) with three chapters in each section. The chapters cover everything from review practices to motivational techniques. Each section is broken down into three chapters, and each chapter contains its own sections: Introduction, In Theory, Models, Principles, Quick Small Teaching, and Conclusion. In each In Theory section, Lang takes the time to discuss the learning theories behind his suggested techniques, along with the data and research to back them up. The Models section contains full, well-wrought [End Page 490] examples of ways to apply the theory to the classroom; the Quick Small Teaching section, in contrast, provides sentence-long tips available for review at a quick glance for those who might want to make changes to their class happening that day.
The first section, Knowledge, focuses on techniques designed to foster the acquisition of material knowledge. Lang discusses the best ways, as he has seen and researched, to help students learn and retain class material. For Lang, the importance of the material knowledge precedes the ability to synthesize and think critically. In the introduction to the Knowledge Section, Lang clarifies:
One of our first and most important tasks as teachers is to help students develop a rich body of knowledge in our content areas—without doing so, we handicap considerably their ability to engage in cognitive activities like thinking and evaluating and creating.(p. 15)
Before we delve into how to help student gain knowledge of the material, Lang presents...