Those Who Can, Teach

Chronicling the Careers of Veteran Researchers Who Are Master Teachers

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The goal is not to get everyone to go to graduate school. It’s rewarding to actually change people’s lives – Patricia Greenfield

When he left graduate school in 1981, William Buskist’s attitude toward teaching could have been politely termed disinterested. “I had no intention of investing substantial time or effort in teaching,” Buskist said, and that’s the adulterated version of his original sentiment toward the classroom: “The goal was to minimize my teaching time in the attempt to maximize my research effort.” What he soon found was a way to maximize both.

Twenty-three years later, teaching is no longer secondary to Buskist’s research – it is his research. He has spent the past 15 years studying the habits and the behavioral characteristics of master teachers, publishing definitive literature on the subject, and chronicling the phenomenon the way Plato chronicled the teachings of Socrates. As recently as 1998 he took a sabbatical from his psychology professorship at Auburn University and traveled the United States and Canada interviewing masters, cultivating his own pedagogical prowess, and edifying future generations on the basic mechanisms of successful teaching.

So why the sudden change? An early experience teaching “The Individual and Society,” a core course required of every Auburn undergraduate, made him wonder what it took to become a more effective teacher. He sifted through the literature on teaching effectiveness, but wasn’t satisfied; if he wanted to become a master teacher he had to go straight to the source. “I decided the next step in my training to become a better teacher was to hit the road and observe and interview master teachers around the country,” Buskist said. “Searching for answers to this question has changed my career in profound and wonderful ways.”

Buskist’s pursuit is extreme, but his motive is shared by many of the masters he studies: The passion to know the unknown, to follow a question through to its most exhausted and final answer, seems a given for mastery, whether in teaching, research, or both. But before reaching this understanding, he had to see it to believe it.

A Man Of Mystery

Robert Cialdini (right) with Brad Sagarin
Robert Cialdini (right) with former student Brad Sagarin in 1999. “I’m five years into a faculty position, and I still don’t have a full understanding of how [Cialdini] created that balance” of teaching and research, Sagarin said.

APS Fellow and Charter Member Robert Cialdini capitalizes on this very trait in his classroom, and the result is undergraduates so captivated by the subject matter they remain stock still even though class officially ended five minutes ago.

How can that be? “At the beginning of each lecture I say, ‘Here’s a set of events unexplainable by common sense, and I promise you’ll be able to solve this mystery at the end of class,’ ” said Cialdini, Arizona State University. He stumbled upon the strategy once when he mistimed a lecture and the bell rang before he could reveal one of these daily mysteries. The result was something mysterious indeed: students wouldn’t leave until he revealed the answer. “There’s something very powerful about the need for closure. As teachers we can use that.”

Cialdini doesn’t just use it, he wrote the book on it. Each chapter of Social Psychology: Unraveling the Mystery begins with a mystery. One of his most popular sleuth stories illustrates the persuasive power of counter-argumentation. It begins with this question: Why in the mid-1960s did tobacco companies petition Congress to ban their own ads on the airwaves, even though television commercials were their biggest source of new converts? In time he reveals the real secret – the US Federal Communications Commission had at that time implemented the “fairness doctrine,” which required equal advertising on controversial topics, and would even underwrite the cost for anti-tobacco forces like the American Cancer Society to air counterarguments. By preemptively self-inflicting the ban, Big Tobacco ensured these psychologically potent counterarguments wouldn’t reach the public.

Cialdini believes that students grasp psychological concepts more firmly when the concepts form the backdrop for a mystery, because the details are so necessary to cracking the case. “There’s a difference between a mystery and a question,” Cialdini said. “Questions demand answers, but a mystery demands something more valuable – explanation.”

Silence is Golden

APS Fellow Evelyn Satinoff doesn’t need a mystery to demand explanation in her classroom. She doesn’t need anything at all. “You have to give students the information to make a decision, and then you wait for them to ask the questions,” she said. “Eventually some kid will break – he can’t stand the silence – and you can see what everyone else thinks from there. Teaching has to have a reactive approach.”

Stylistically, Satinoff’s Socratic method of instruction is different from Cialdini’s, but the goal is the same: to foster an environment where the question is more important than the answer. “Evelyn challenges students to think about problems rather than accept past solutions memorized from text or previous lab research,” said Elizabeth Peloso, who witnessed the approach firsthand during her 10 years as Satinoff’s lab coordinator at the University of Delaware. “Her students must be able to defend interpretations of experiments or papers in the lab and of material in the classroom. She uses non-standard texts in teaching and the primary goal is to get the students to really analyze the topic and form a well thought out argument to support their conclusions.”

In addition to “non-standard texts,” Satinoff often shows films, particularly at the beginning of a course, in order to start discussion from a level playing field. Since she approaches psychology from a very evolutionary point of view she starts many of her classes with a film on evolution, and because she places such a high emphasis on matters of the brain – which many young psychology students have not yet studied and some veteran students do not remember – she shows these brief cinematic recaps to inform the discussion. “I find good movies help a lot, because nobody’s afraid of a movie,” Satinoff said. “I don’t want a student thinking, ‘Oh my god, she said “brain” or “neuron”.’ PBS shows are so clear, so simple, and they can remind kids about the brain and behavior.”

Patricia Greenfield, University of California, Los Angeles, also finds films a good way to create a common ground. “I give an introduction of the film, tell students what to look for, then we have lively discussions. This puts everyone on a common ground, makes everyone an equal expert,” she said. Greenfield uses developmental psychology films in every class; in “Culture, Ethnicity, and Development,” every class features a full-length documentary.

This allows students to “see how experiments were actually done. I could make different environments accessible and discuss child development in different cultures. I felt this is a way to bring behavior into the classroom that [students] otherwise wouldn’t experience,” she said. What she didn’t count on was the way it would bring her classroom into her laboratory.

From Classroom To Lab, And Back Again

A typical day in the teaching life of Patricia Greenfield meant three hundred undergraduates from dozens of cultures engaged in lively scholastic discussion. For her, it was nothing unusual; in fact it happened regularly enough to earn her a UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award.

But over the years Greenfield learned so much about her students’ backgrounds that eventually she became intrigued with their culture – and then obsessed. It was only a matter of time before the search for knowledge that drove her teaching habits was driving her own behavioral research.

Greenfield began studying the effects of different cultures on human development, using her students’ experiences as a springboard to a more universal understanding. She edited Cross-Cultural Roots of Minority Child Development, which brought together a group of scholars to discuss conflicting cultural approaches to development. Greenfield recalled one particularly striking account of a Mayan native’s response when told that parents in Salt Lake City would never sleep in the same bed with their babies: “Letting a baby sleep alone is child abuse!”

“I would have never dared to do something so international without my students,” Greenfield said. “All my research on culture has come out of teaching.”

For her efforts Greenfield became the first (and only) woman to receive the UCLA Gold Shield Prize, which recognizes extraordinary accomplishment in a combination of teaching and research. In 1996 she partnered with one of her students to create the Bridging Cultures Project, a program that helps teachers develop their skills as researchers, a reflection of Greenfield’s own effective synergy.

“It’s the yin and the yang,” said Greenfield when asked which is more rewarding. “I’ve found teaching and researching each more rewarding at different times in my career. If my research is slow, then the immediacy of the classroom can be exciting.”

APS Fellow Doug Bernstein, chair of the program committee for the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology – an organization that hosts an annual meeting for the exchange of ideas on teaching psychology – agreed that it takes a fluid approach to achieve success in both teaching and research, because each is so demanding.

“The problem for some teachers, of course, is that they love teaching so much and spend so much time and effort on it that there is little time or energy left over for research,” said Bernstein, University of South Florida. “But this is a matter of priorities, not any inherent conflict between the world of teaching and the world of research.”

No one’s teaching and research worlds are more fluid than Cialdini’s. “Bob’s philosophy permeates what he does at all levels,” said Brad Sagarin, a former Cialdini graduate student and current professor at Northern Illinois University. “His teaching feeds into his research, his research feeds into his teaching. He integrates them in a very effective way.”

Cialdini calls his research technique Full Cycle Social Psychology, but the idea behind it is no different than the mysteries that mark his chalkboard. “The strategy is to look for real world phenomena that have big impacts on behavior,” Cialdini said. “Then I try to unpack the causes for why and how the phenomena appear as they do.”

The process is simple: A good scientist should observe something in its natural environment; theorize ways to explain it; conduct an experiment based on the theory; then take the findings back to the natural setting to see if they fit with features of the phenomena. Noah Goldstein, a current Cialdini graduate student and research collaborator, may have put it best when he called Cialdini not so much a research investigator as a private investigator.

“I’m on the lookout for unusual, uncommon features of the environment that are difficult to understand and on their face don’t make sense,” said Cialdini. “I try to uncover the clues in a rigorous fashion consistent with science.”

The only thing certain about the limits of Cialdini’s scientific curiosity is that such limits may not exist. He once went under cover to explore how insurance companies use persuasion to their advantage when dealing with potential customers. While writing Influence, a book on persuasion geared for a popular audience, he scoured all the books by academics for non-academics to find which sections were most successful and see what they had in common. There’s no such thing as getting too deep into something if it will help you explain the universe, and that’s why Cialdini tells his graduate students to be on the lookout for “puzzling, intriguing, multiply-explainable phenomena” in every day interactions.

“The number one standard of what is real is what transpires in the environment, because an experimental setting can be so artificial,” he said. “There’s a grander experiment going on around us than we could ever conduct.”

A Two-Way Street

APS Fellow and Charter Member Robert Rescorla agreed that strong teaching means focusing on how scientific questions are posed as much as how they are answered. But as beneficial as this practice might be for his students, it’s by no means a one-way street. Rescorla, University of Pennsylvania, often finds his own ideas whetted by the process of teacher-student interaction. This is no truer than when a student asks him a “naïve” question. “Those often make me realize how limited my own conceptions are,” he said.

The master-student interaction goes back a long way. Historical records indicate that Socrates wrote very little, relying on the verbal impact of his dialectical method to convey his knowledge to students. Plato transcribed his master’s teachings, without which we might never know how good Socrates really was. Then again, it’s a lot easier to be a master with students like Plato.

More than 40 years ago, psychologist John R. Platt published an article in an October 1963 issue of Science called “Strong Inference,” which has since become a fixture on the syllabi of psychology students across the country. In it Platt challenged researchers to prove their scientific theories not by repeatedly supporting hypotheses they knew to be true, but by holding these hypotheses up against what they didn’t know to see if they could bear the load.

What’s more, Platt encouraged good scientists to teach this method as much for the sake of their own research as for the integrity of science. “The most important thing is to keep in mind that this kind of thinking is not a lucky knack but a system that can be taught and learned,” Platt wrote, implying rather ambitiously that the researchers who successfully used this approach – and were therefore able to speak on its behalf – would be as effective teaching it as they were practicing it. Satinoff exemplifies this success.

It’s nice to figure out why you think what you do. This is what you have to do in science, but science is not unlike real life.

- Evelyn Satinoff

A good theory is not just the result of clear thinking in the preparatory stage, said Satinoff, it’s “figuring out possible artifacts in your experimental procedure, alternative explanations. If A or B is a possible outcome, and it turns out to be A, what’s the next experiment to further nail down that it is A?” she asked.

“Her approach to research is to think outside the box,” said Peloso. “A successful experiment with Evelyn [Satinoff] not only answers a question but proposes the next question.”

Satinoff says her main goal is “to get students thinking about things,” echoing Socrates who supposedly declared almost 2,500 years ago: “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”

Julio Ramirez, Davidson College, also relies heavily on this time-tested method, what he called the “ebb-and-flow of dialogue between my students and me.”

“I have terrific fun interacting with my students in class and in the lab,” said Ramirez, who recently became the first psychologist awarded the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars, which recognizes scientists who exemplify the ability to integrate their research and educational activities. “Asking students to think their way through problems posed in class and lab is a wonderful form of interaction. I prefer to have students use their imaginations whenever possible. Students have raised questions and provided insights in class that have triggered additional avenues for me to pursue in research.”

For Cialdini, three major influences contributed to what he calls his “detective approach” to teaching and research. Chester Insko taught him how to track phenomena and unpack the possible explanations in a rigorous fashion. John Thibault had a more concentric approach that invariably began with a question and ended with countless more. APS Fellow and Charter Member Stanley Schachter, Columbia University, chased phenomena wherever they led him.

“If he saw an investigation wasn’t quite what he expected, he was willing to say that’s more powerful and look into this new thing instead,” Cialdini said of Schachter, his postdoc mentor. “He was willing to get off his horse in the middle of the stream and get on another one going the opposite direction.”

So What Does It Take?

Schachter’s attitude is something that all the masters seem to have in common – an agenda more freewheeling than fixed, where questions are tour guides, not destinations. Of course, understanding how the masters manage such an open-ended lifestyle is not so simple.

“One of the real challenges to being both a researcher and a teacher is there are so many things pulling you in so many directions,” said Sagarin. “I’m five years into a faculty position, and I still don’t have a full understanding of how Bob [Cialdini] created that balance. It’s something I’ll probably still be wondering years from now.”

The product of Buskist’s years of wonder is a list of nearly 30 effective teacher qualities called the Teacher Behavior Checklist; his recent sabbatical gave birth to 10 basic principles of effective teaching, from basic enthusiasm to vigilant self-monitoring. (For a complete list, read Buskist’s “Ways of the Master Teacher”) Not surprisingly, one of the principles is to “view teaching as an experimental endeavor.”

“What I have to say in the classroom or lab is energized by my own passion for discovery,” Ramirez said. “I never viewed my [teaching] career as being mutually exclusive with research. I view them as inextricably linked; one informing and energizing the other.”

But Buskist recognizes that mastery can’t be whittled down to a laundry list of tasks. “Anyone who aspires to become a master must realize that these qualities represent a starting point,” he said. For all his searching inside the classroom, he still can’t put a finger on exactly what separates a good researcher or a great teacher from those who master both. That might be because some of the best advice these masters have given extends far beyond the ivory tower. That’s why despite being a great educator in the classroom and the lab, Satinoff would be satisfied if at the end of the day her kids could read Time magazine or the weekly Science section of The New York Times, and Greenfield would rather give students something they could “take with them in life, in raising their own children.”

“The goal is not to get everyone to go to graduate school. It’s rewarding to actually change people’s lives,” Greenfield said. “I think a passion and commitment to give something useful in everyday life distinguishes you as a teacher.”

That’s the reason Buskist went on his expedition to begin with – to find this passion and use it in his everyday life. It’s that passion, that infectious energy, that convinced Sagarin he had made the right decision to leave a lucrative career in computer science and study under Cialdini.

“One of the most important things Bob taught me was that you have to really love what you’re doing. That’s the choice I made. This is what I love,” Sagarin said. “I try to impart that to my students. You don’t need a PhD to be successful in life.”

No one understands this more than Satinoff, who said she doesn’t just motivate undergraduates to pursue graduate study in psychology; instead, she tries to motivate them “to become citizens who understand why psychological research is useful. One is always making decisions based on incomplete data, hearsay, hunches, etc. It’s nice to figure out why you think what you do. This is what you have to do in science, but science is not unlike real life.”


References and Further Reading:



Observer Vol.17, No.9 September, 2004

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