Lafon says he’s not interested in having his students memorize facts from a textbook. “I want them to understand the processes that are responsible for the existence of patterns – patterns like prevailing winds, annual precipitation, radiation, pressure, fires, insect outbreaks, ice storms and hurricanes, to name just a few.” That’s how geography happens, he explains. It’s contingent upon patterns that occur over long periods of time.
He’d rather be in the field than in a classroom, or as one student puts it, “We’re not just reading out of a book about what other people do; we’re actually getting the information for ourselves.” Lafon shows his upper-level students how to collect data, analyze it and then he leads them on a path, not only to solve a problem, but also to understand what it’s like to be a geographer.
"I try to incorporate critical thinking skills into everything my students do," Lafon says. That includes his introductory large lecture courses, where his goal is to inspire and motivate his students.
"I like to give them a 'hook' to get them interested," he says. "It might be a problem to solve, or a story about how a discovery was made that illustrates the link between research and teaching. Everyone has heard of the Ice Age, but how was the Ice Age actually discovered? How do we know that fire is a constraint for some forms of vegetation, but a wonderful opportunity to thrive for others?"
"There are things I'd never consider doing in my lecture class if I hadn't done the research," he adds. "For example, I use countless photos I've taken in the field to illustrate so much of what I teach them."
Lafon involves students in his research, which focuses on vegetation dynamics, plant geography and the consequences of natural and human disturbances. At any point in the year several students can be found in his lab researching tree rings. As Lafon puts it, "They see first-hand how research is done ― how we think and investigate ― and they add to that body of knowledge."
A huge proponent of enjoying his students and building trusting relationships with them, Lafon says, "If the students are the center of the learning, rather than the material, then the students will learn the material more thoroughly and enjoy it more."
Lafon's teaching methods have paid off for his students as well as for him. He was awarded The Association of Former Students' College-Level Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching in 2006 and the University-Level Distinguished Teaching Award in 2008. In addition, Lafon is a Montague-Center for Teaching Excellence Scholar, an honor received in 2004-2005.
His teaching has paid off for his students in many ways. Lafon teaches a writing-intensive course because he says he believes that knowing how to communicate well is a life skill, important in every job. His field classes are also filled with job-related skills that don't just pertain to geographers; as Lafon notes, "problem-solving and analyzing data are valuable in any job market."
"I want my students to leave my class enthused about geographical patterns and to remember why they are exciting. More importantly, he concludes, I want them to continue to be enthusiastic down the road . . . about lifelong learning."
For the CTE series Teaching for Tomorrow go to http://vimeo.com/tamucte