Bok Center Profile: Questions for Associate Director John Girash


John Girash
Science & Engineering specialist, Head TF Network, Activity-Based Learning, Harvard College Fellows, Designing the Course of the Future, Research-Based Pedagogy

Tell us something we wouldn’t have guessed about you.

I play bari sax in the Harvard Alumni Jazz Band!

What project are you working on right now?

The “Designing the Course of the Future” GSAS/Bok-Center seminar is having its second annual ‘Syllabus Fair’ the afternoon of April 30 in CGIS South, and I’m working on the logistics with the seminar members and our Pedagogy Fellow, Ruxy Paul. I’m excited for all the DCF participants to show off their designs to the wider campus community. Everyone should come if they can!

What’s been your favorite project this month?

In the SEAS Teaching Practicum we had a Harvard Business School-style case discussion about student expectations and hot moments in a science classroom. It was a lot of fun to break out of the usual task-focused science-teaching mode with the students and to hear their thinking about the more emotion-driven side of teaching.

What’s the coolest innovation you’ve seen this year?

There are a couple of impressive visualization labs on campus, the Viz Center in earth science, and the Institute for Medical Simulation over at the Medical
School. What excites me so much about these is that students can experience (in the Viz Center) and manipulate (IMS) the ‘field’ environment with a high degree of realism that should allow for much more authentic — and so later-accessible — learning.

What’s your biggest educational pet peeve?

There’s a lot of discussion in pedagogy circles about this method or that technique leading to the most (or the best) student learning. But what gets ignored most of the time is the dominant effect of time-on-task –that just a small increase in teacher time spent attending to a topic, or in student time spent struggling with the meaning and use of concepts, can produce learning gains far beyond any change in technique. There’s a lot to be said for just getting distractions out of the way and giving teachers the chance to teach and students room and motivation to learn.

Complete the sentence: “new teachers are always surprised to learn
that…”

New teachers are always surprised to learn that… “good teaching” isn’t about the teacher’s performance, it’s about the students’ learning. And that means good teaching is often messy, with poorly-phrased repetitive conversational verbiage and not crisp perfect explanations like you see in movies and other media. New teachers usually feel the need to demonstrate their mastery of the material, but what’s really called for is creating a situation in which students demonstrate their confusion so that the teacher can help them through it.

Complete the sentence: “the best way for experienced teachers to keep improving their pedagogy is to…”

The best way for experienced teachers to keep improving their pedagogy is to… try new things, with some pre-defined notion of what success will look like, and document how well the effort met those notions. This isn’t to say just to change for change’s sake! But it is saying don’t just sit in your comfort zone and never see if something you’ve wondered about will or won’t work. Students are sensitive to change, but they’re also remarkably resilient in their strive to learn.

What’s the piece of advice you find yourself giving the most often?

I call it “tweaking the knobs”… once you as a teacher explain a concept or analysis using a specific example, just change one of the initial assumptions a bit and ask the students how the result will be affected. It’s a quick-and-easy way to gauge students’ understanding.

What’s the funniest teaching blooper you’ve witnessed or made yourself?

There was one teacher who could never quite pronounce “orgaNIsmic biology”…

Tell us about a really interesting assignment you’ve seen.

I think the recent archeological digs in the Yard are incredibly cool examples of authentic learning assignments, but they’ve also gotten a lot of attention already. So I’ll point at a couple of the student projects from the “Activity-Based Learning” courses I work with. In one History course (84q), students went into Boston and Allston to record and write up oral histories as given by long-time residents of the city, bringing into the academic light an authentic (there’s that word again) viewpoint that’s otherwise easily overlooked. In another course, before my time, engineering and government students interned with the City of Somerville to help optimize city services that might otherwise have been cut for budgetary or efficiency/effectiveness reasons.

There’s so much opportunity for the larger physical and community environment here to serve as both our classrooms and our labs; my hope is that Harvard can move towards situating its academic practices within the local environment in a more institution-wide sense.

Describe your favorite teacher.

I’d have to say my high school Physics teacher, Mr. Heward — I don’t even know his first name. He wasn’t the friendliest or most socially-nuturing teacher, and I think he wouldn’t mind me saying so. But he respected us as people first and would talk with us as a person, not as an authority figure. And it was clear that he loved his subject and wanted nothing more than for us to learn it well, and to appreciate it as much as he did if possible. So while I thought of my other high school teachers as ‘teachers’ who happened to teach a given subject, I thought of Mr. Heward as a physicist who happened to be a teacher.

What’s your favorite part of your job at the Bok Center?

Oh gee, how to name one aspect. I love working with scientists on science, as that’s my identity. But I also love working across all fields (with Head TFs, with the Course of the Future, with Activity Based Learning, etc) as that broadens my perspective so far beyond what most people embedded in a given profession ever get the chance to experience or contribute to. So I’ll cop out and say that it’s that I get to
do both.

I’ve also really enjoyed the opportunity, in the past few years, to get back to teaching my own semester-long seminars in addition to supporting other teachers.

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