Thursday, October 18, 2007

Teaching and Teaching Research

A former colleague of mine, Dan Butin, has responded to a column written by Hugo Schwyzer (his blog is here) in Inside Higher Ed. In it, Schwyzer complains about having to sit through an "in-service education day," one of those meetings laced with buzzwords and catchphrases, where rah-rah cheerleading is used to tell faculty they need to change what they are doing and have always done. I am sympathetic to his concern. The presentations do often seem much like cheap sales pitches of whatever is fashionable, the sort of thing that management types with cheesy motivational posters would embrace.

At the same, time, however, Dan is dead on right. Amongst the faculty are scholars, good, rigorous researchers interested in absolutely every phenomenon under the sun, including how people learn. There are real scientists doing real science that has, like every other science, fascinating results that are counter-intuitive or challenge prevailing beliefs and practices. Few areas today are making the strides that we see in the study of the human brain. We are understanding how things work in ways we never did before and these new insights provide us with tools that would make us much more effective in creating students with knowledge, understanding, and insight.

But, we'll be damned, if we'll listen to them. We'll ridicule people for not buying into the science behind global warming or evolution, but advances in cognitive science that show us our own failings as teachers, fashionable nonsense, we declare without so much as a glance at the research results, methodologies, or ramifications.

College-level teachers are given not a single day's worth of training in how to teach. We're thrown out there into the classroom as grad students to be a teaching assistant for someone who also was never taught to teach, someone who is in his or her position because he or she is a great researcher and achieved high professional status regardless of the care, ability, or technique employed in the classroom. We receive little if any meaningful feedback about how we teach and have little incentive under the academic reward structure to improve. As a result, the success of instruction is surely less than desirable.

Yet, when confronted with empirically supported suggestions that would likely result in improvement, we act like a bunch of frat guys, saying, that's the way it was done when I was getting hazed, I mean taught, as an undergraduate, so that's the way I'm going to do it to them. Think about who the college profs of today are. They are the ones whose learning style was particularly well adapted to the ancient style of lecture, what (to steal a line from Arlo Guthrie) is what we call "The Boring Method." They got good grades because they (we) are wired for extracting things from lectures. Getting those good grades put them in grad school with others who were well-suited to that way of learning and then group think reinforces it, in addition to the only training you get from those who would never think of doing anything but lecturing lest it cut in on research time.

So, if the culture discourages looking into advances in pedagogical research, the reward structure discourages it, and it seems like "one more thing" in an already busy life, how do we get college profs to pay attention to the results of the science which would make them better teachers?