Learning a thing or two from the Teach Better Podcast

When it comes to understanding the intricacies of teaching, Douglas McKee and Edward O’Neill are two peas in a podcast.

McKee, a lecturer in the Department of Economics, and O’Neill, senior instructional designer at the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, are the creators of the Teach Better Podcast. They record conversations with faculty members in McKee’s office, and every two weeks they post a new, hour-long episode. The public can access the podcasts via http://teachbetter.co/podcast.html.

YaleNews recently spoke with McKee and O’Neill about the project and how they approach a podcast devoted to teaching.

What is the motivation behind Teach Better, and why did you decide to use the podcast format?

McKee: I had been listening to several tech podcasts where a few smart people have entertaining conversations about the latest technology news, and I thought it would be nice to hear some smart people talking about teaching, which is something I personally care about a lot.

O’Neill: Doug and I were having lunch together regularly — every few weeks or so. One day, we had walked back to his office, and we were standing outside the econ building, gabbing. He was talking about podcasts and how podcasts about teaching didn’t ultimately satisfy him. I said, “You love podcasts, and you love teaching and learning. So you have to do a podcast. I’ll handle the technology.”

Did you have any experience conducting interviews?

McKee: I certainly didn’t have any formal experience, but I had been working my way down a list of people at Yale that I had heard were doing interesting things in the classroom and having lunch with them. Doing a recorded interview is pretty different, but I think we’re getting better at it with each episode.

O’Neill: I’m kind of a psychology nerd. All the way back to my undergrad days at Yale, I was fascinated by the idea that a conversation could change your life. That’s what psychotherapy is. Not that our show is therapy, but the idea of getting people to open up and explore their experiences — I think that’s relevant.

Who was your first guest? How did it go?

O’Neill: Our first show didn’t have a guest. Doug and I started testing the equipment, and he kind of tested his interview questions on me. I was the first “victim,” and that equipment test became our first episode.

McKee: Jim Rolf from the math department was our first guest. He’s doing such innovative work teaching introductory calculus and yet couldn’t be a humbler guy. He has his students watch video lectures and take a short quiz before class, and he tailors the in-person meeting to what they actually need help with. We could have easily talked to him for twice as long.

Jenny Frederick, the executive director of the new Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, was our second guest, and she was fantastic. She shares our vision of wanting to build a community around great teaching, and she had terrific stories from her own teaching experience.

We’ve published seven episodes now and have two more recorded and ready to go. It’s important to us to stick to a regular schedule, but it’s so hard to hold back a great episode after we’ve recorded it.

What are some of your favorite moments from the series so far?

McKee: That’s a hard one — there have been so many already. I loved how (Sterling Professor Emeritus of Classics and History) Don Kagan would get excited and bang on the table. I love Jenny Frederick telling us how her first student evaluations told her to smile. I loved how (Sterling Professor of English) David Bromwich told us there really are right and wrong answers to questions about Shakespeare. But it’s hard to top (associate professor of psychology) Laurie Santos explaining how she teaches a 600-student undergraduate lecture in Battell Chapel about the psychology of sex.

O’Neill: There’s one moment that happens almost every show. Doug asks questions about “mistakes” in the classroom. What did they mess up; what did they learn from it? I actually think there’s a connection between acknowledging one’s mistakes and being a highly effective teacher. Donald Kagan told a story about one of his professors in graduate school acknowledging a mistake and how deeply affected he was by that. He also said he forgets his mistakes, which I think is wise.

In fact, Donald Kagan was so forthcoming about his views on teaching, that his episode is particularly dear to me. It should come as no surprise that highly effective teachers are pretty good at explaining what it is they do. But it still surprises and pleases me. Every episode.

How is teaching changing?

O’Neill: Well, I think the obvious answer is technology. Teachers can use Powerpoint, capture their lectures on video, make their own short video lectures that students watch before coming to class. Students can make a video instead of writing a paper. But none of these things is really about technology. It’s about what technology enables you to do: give more control to the learner; help the learner become self-directed.

McKee: Lectures are becoming a lot more interactive, and I think students are getting more opportunities to be creative in their classes. Students learn more when they are engaged, and we are absolutely engaging them more. At the same time, a lot about teaching isn’t broken. At Yale, we have some of the best pure lecturers the world has ever heard, and we don’t want to lose that art.

What plans do you have for future guests and topics?

O’Neill: We’re starting to vary the format — to include students, for instance. I can imagine putting one or two teachers in conversation. Very soon, we want to do a “reflection episode,” where we stop and reflect on what we’ve learned, pick up the threads and weave them together. Whatever gets us deeper into the best in teaching and learning, that’s where I hope we’ll go.

McKee: I’ve been asking my current and former students to tell me about their best professors, and now have a long list of potential future guests. I find the diversity in the list inspiring as it includes some of the most senior and junior lecturers and ladder faculty at Yale from across all the disciplines.

So far we’ve focused on Yale College, but I’m excited to branch out to what’s happening in the School of Management, the Medical School, the Law School, and the other professional schools. There’s just so much to talk about that I think we’ll be doing this for quite a while.