Faculty Focus: Mark Isham and Teaching in the Real World

Faculty Focus: Mark Isham and Teaching in the Real World

Mark Isham image

Professor Mark Isham prepares students for the “real world” by focusing on doing in his TILE classroom.

After teaching Writing for Business and Industry at the University of Iowa for over 20 years, Prof. Mark Isham knows the importance of demonstrating a practical skill, and that’s one reason he values the active-learning environment the TILE classrooms support.

In TILE, Isham knows students will leave his classroom with more than just knowledge.

“Over the years, I’ve attempted to get them to do more and more,” Isham explains. “In writing, you say, ‘show, don’t tell,’ and, I think, in teaching its, ‘do, don’t tell.’”

Isham’s students have been doing even more over the last two semesters since he has taught in a TILE classroom. The structure of the room allows his students to tackle group activities and exchange ideas.

 “Sometimes they’ll work at the table and then write on the whiteboard,” Isham says.   “Other times we’ll talk about a text on the screen.”

This helps build both student confidence and critical thinking skills.

“Students need to think about what they are expected to do, do it, and then evaluate what they have done,” Isham says. “There is a greater opportunity for this in a TILE classroom.”

Many students in his class are about to enter the job market and Isham understands how important it is for them to effectively explain an idea.

“Developing the skill of telling people why you came up with it and how you came up with it is much easier in a TILE classroom,” says Isham. “It is much more about the process rather than a conventional classroom where you’re usually thinking, well, there is an answer.””

He feels more comfortable now but the transition to TILE was not always easy for Isham. When he started out in TILE, Isham had to learn and experience a lot first hand, especially issues of timing, pacing, and the amount of content he was used to delivering.

“It’s hard in a 50 minute class session,” Isham observes. “You really have to move things along. And I felt like I didn’t complete the task well enough”.

Before long, Isham realized he had to change his approach.

“I have to go much slower because it makes me live up to my word of saying: ‘let’s try this out’,“ he says. “I’ve got to spend the time to let them try it out.”

Rather than giving the students time to work and then stopping them, Isham decided he had to let them work together in a flow. During class, he circulates in the room, talks to the students, takes questions, and offers suggestions or alternatives.

“It’s really much more collaborative between the two of us on working towards an answer,” Isham says referring to the students. “We’re setting up criteria for judging what will be effective, what will get across to readers. And the point is not that there’s only one way to do it or that there’s a correct answer.”

Because the TILE classroom slows him down, Isham says this helps him not hurry the students, and then they can share more of their work.

Isham also finds the pace makes him more intentional and that impacts students as well.

“It makes me go through all the steps,” he says” “And it makes the students talk to each other in a way that they just find much more difficult in the other classrooms.”

Keeping track of student progress in this active environment was another area Isham found challenging in the early going. Again, his solution was pretty straightforward – keep moving.

“What you need to do is walk around,” he says. “You’ll find that some people have just not done a good job and you can make suggestions. In other cases, they’ve done a better job than I expected.”

“My being at ease makes it seem like we’re not in a hurry,” says Isham.

So far, Isham thinks the students like the updated format supported by the TILE environment especially when in class material and concepts are reinforced in the homework.

“That’s what really appeals to them,” says Isham. “These skills can be used immediately.”

Isham also feels learning this process can support students after they finish at Iowa and go into the business world.

“Oftentimes as an entrepreneur, you’re not interested in the most efficient or cost-effective answer,” he says. “You want to play with the idea so you’re quite willing to let people come up with all kinds of solutions.”

 “You want to see what’s available out there, and then evaluate it,” Isham concludes.

Isham is pleased so far with how teaching in a TILE classroom has allowed a deeper engagement with his own approach to teaching.

“What we do is what we know’”, says Isham. “It’s better to have an open sense of ‘I know what I’m doing, I know what this task is teaching me. And I will know how to do it again in a different way.’”

“This brings it back to what really should be the philosophy of every teacher,” Isham opines. “ Which is ‘I want you to leave the class being able to do certain things, not just know certain things.’”