Review of The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching, by David Gooblar

Review of The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching, by David Gooblar

Gooblar, David. (2019). The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
272 pages, Hardcover, $29.95

Tyler Sheldon
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA., USA

In his new book The Missing Course, David Gooblar writes toward college teachers and administrators alike when he asserts that a more student-centered learning environment is far more effective than a lecture-based classroom. Applied active learning, he asserts, is crucial to student success. Unlike much recent pedagogy scholarship, which contends that a lecture-based classroom is standard for a reason (time-honored “effectiveness,” efficiency, routine), Gooblar favors an engaged and immersive experiential style of teaching. He argues that “[i]n the not-too-distant future, it is now imaginable that researchers will refuse to study lectures as a mode of teaching because to do so would be an unethical imposition on the poor students who have to suffer through them.” He emphasizes this point by noting that some pedagogy scholars are already beginning to agree, and (like him) are treating the experiential model as a foregone conclusion, moving from “the active learning versus lecturing question and focus[ing] instead on determining what kinds of active learning work best” (p. 15).

Gooblar, Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University, asserts that educational researchers have been sounding the same alarm for years, a call that curriculum administrators are just beginning to listen to: many students learn most effectively not from “passive[ly] listening to an expert, but from actively taking part in their own education, utilizing higher-order thinking, and collaborating with each other.” He cites several studies contemporary to his own work, noting that more active classroom environments have a “disproportionately positive impact” on underserved and minority students: they bolster critical and creative thinking as well as problem-solving capacity to a higher level than similar students who took only lecture-based classes (p. 16).

This conceptualization of active learning is a key tenet of The Missing Course, and it permeates the entire book. Gooblar situates it by contrasting it with older methods, which he compares to filling a jar: once students learn information for the long-term, it stays with them, to be taken out when needed and then put back (a good specific example of this idea is Paulo Freire’s famous “banking” concept of education). He argues against this notion, suggesting that all learning is cumulative, irrespective of subject, grade level, and other considerations. He posits that “[f]or a student to be taught, she must revise her current understanding to become a new understanding—[learning] doesn’t just happen automatically” (p. 17). Where lecturing mandates a jar-retrieval system, active learning sees these jars as a harmful impediment to better understanding how learning actually functions. Ultimately, Gooblar notes that this more-effective, cumulative, self-revisionist system is classified as Constructivist pedagogy (or simply constructivism), and he argues that it is the baseline method teachers should use to progress toward a more effective teaching practice.

Gooblar finds this constructivist style applicable to many aspects of teaching. He asserts that teachers should be just as flexible in their approach to students as students are to new material. “The best teachers are responsive to their students,” he suggests, because they:

adjust on the fly, paying attention to students’ progress throughout. They make sure they are teaching the students in front of them rather than the fantasy students envisioned back in July. Above all, they cultivate flexibility, planning for their plans to change as the facts on the ground demand. Your students are the facts on the ground. Your pedagogy must make space for them. (p. 107)

This argument reads as essential to Gooblar’s entire enterprise—just as students find ways to revise their thinking on issue after issue in the classroom, teachers must also bear in mind that each group of students they teach (and indeed, each individual student) is different, learns in different ways, and requires different structures to support and best facilitate that process of self-revision.

Importantly, The Missing Course situates itself not only within contemporary pedagogy scholarship and classroom practice, but also in the current extracurricular world. In the later chapter “Teaching in Tumultuous Times,” Gooblar acknowledges the ominous strangeness permeating his and his students’ world in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. His students turned in response papers that ranged from “tears to anger to apparent ignorance that anything unusual had happened at all” (p. 177). Reflecting on that time, he muses about the role of teaching in our volatile current moment:

We now inhabit a world in which many of the things we took for granted as underpinning our practice cannot be taken for granted anymore . . . In times like these, our tasks as instructors are more important than ever. We have the opportunity to foster the values and skills that a fair and representative democracy needs to survive. (p. 178)

To these ideas, Gooblar adds a reassuring and empowering note. “Not every aspect of course climate is under your control,” he acknowledges. “But there’s plenty you can do to ensure that every student has a seat at the table” (p. 181). Throughout The Missing Course, Gooblar argues for developing a more thorough understanding of the student learning process, and part of that development is surely providing acceptance and a safe environment for student expression. Important to that endeavor is placing emphasis on cumulative learning and eschewing expectations of simple information recall, which contributes nothing much to the learning process at large. Gooblar’s arguments throughout this book seem quite solid. His attention to the scholarship surrounding his work, and his interactions with (and occasional refutations of) that pedagogical context, situate him once again as the engaged and invested teacher and observer of teaching practices that he is known to be. The Missing Course provides a valuable resource to teachers wishing to become (or stay) progressive in their pedagogy.

Readers can purchase The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching directly from Harvard University Press, and also from many national booksellers and online retailers.