The Cornell economics department had just received an Active Learning Initiative (ALI) grant to transform its entire undergraduate core curriculum over the next five years. It was the culmination of eight months of planning, writing and consensus-building in the department that started before McKee arrived at Cornell last fall. McKee, a senior lecturer, is the ALI project lead in economics.
“I’ve taken it on as my career goal to help change how economics is taught across the field,” says McKee. “It’s not often you actually get your dream job, and I couldn’t be more excited. One person can’t do it all, but one person can push a rock over the edge.”
Originally, McKee’s career focused on research with little teaching, but it didn’t feel like the right match to him. As a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University, he taught his first class and realized how much he loved it. But, he said, “We can do so much better at getting students to actually learn.” He founded his Teach Better blog in 2014 to share his thoughts on teaching and the education system in general. (Follow his blog on twitter at @TeachBetterCo, subscribe to the RSS feed or subscribe via email.)
McKee struck up a friendship with Edward O’Neill at the Yale equivalent of Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation, and it occurred to him that their frequent conversations about teaching were “the podcast I always wanted to listen to but could never find.” Between McKee’s undergraduate degree in computer science (his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, is in economics) and O’Neill’s audio production experience and doctorate from the UCLA film school, they had all the requisite skills to create their own podcast.
This August, they published their 61st episode of the Teach Better Podcast, each of which gets between 1,000 to 3,000 downloads. About 50 percent of their recent guests are from Cornell, many recommended by students and the Center for Teaching Innovation. The interviews range from “Teaching as Jazz With Steve Pond,” associate professor and chair of music, to “Teams and Game Design With Walker White,” the Stephen H. Weiss Provost’s Teaching Fellow and director of the Game Design Initiative in the Department of Computer Science. The most popular episode is “Inspiring Students With Steve Strogatz,” the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics. McKee says he loves doing the interviews and gaining different perspectives; the interview with White, for example, “stretched my brain about what’s possible in the classroom.”
This summer, McKee and O’Neill shook things up a bit on the podcast by organizing a series of episodes around categories of educational technology, like “Classroom Response Systems” and “Digital Textbooks” and including three to four experts per episode, instead of just one.
Many of the podcast guests emphasize that while they want students to learn facts, a bigger goal is for them to learn to think like someone in their discipline: to think like an economist or historian or philosopher. Says McKee: “That requires deep learning, and there is a large body of research that active methods are more effective at getting students to learn at that level than passive lecturing. We’re scholars, so we believe research. If the research says we should teach this way, then I think we should.”