Making the Shift from Rhetoric to Performance

Discussion of teaching and learning as an academic, scholarly endeavor has become an acceptable conversation on college campuses. A shift is beginning to take place whereby the scholarship of teaching and learning is now being taken seriously. We are making progress in higher education by making undergraduate education intentional, thus moving toward a learner-centered paradigm.

While this is encouraging, it is crucial to acknowledge that most of the effort and literature on the learner-centered paradigm and the scholarship of teaching have necessarily focused on strategies for faculty. It is equally important for administrators to consider the impact of the paradigm shift on their roles. Specifically, the Futures Project called for institutions to meet the changes and challenge for survival by investing more in leadership. They note that “higher education is one of the few sectors of society that does not focus on a constant effort to find and develop leaders.” (Newman, Courtier, & Scurry, p. 199)

Research on leadership is closely aligned with the research on learning, and this suggests that professional development of administrators should focus on the key attributes of both. To take a term from learning theory research, we need to look for deep learning among our administrators, to be assured that they are truly prepared for the challenges involved in completing this paradigm shift. In 2007, the report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) called for principled and determined leadership if we are to achieve excellence in the American education system. (Crutcher, O’Brien, Corrigan, & Schneider, p. 47)

Essentially the LEAP National Leadership Council is calling for a shift to a learner-centered curriculum, one that emphasizes active learning and deep learning through collaboration, first-year seminars, learning communities, undergraduate research, writing-intensive courses, service learning, internships, etc. (pp. 53–54) These practices must be supported and assessed within the learner-centered framework or we run the risk of simply creating a storefront that appears to be learner-centered but is shallow and superficial, one that is the old paradigm with new window dressing.

Leaders must do more than simply say that the institution’s goal is to become learning-centered. For those still immersed in the teaching paradigm as opposed to the learning paradigm, this pronouncement simply means that the institution will focus on teaching or educating students with no deep understanding of what the difference is between teaching and learning and no substantial change in current practice. As stated in the Futures Project report, “If an institution is to change and become learning-centered, tinkering at the edges won’t do it. Several basic shifts in the organizational culture are essential.” (Newman, Courtier & Scurry 2004, 141) These shifts include moving from rhetoric to performance, moving from denial to acceptance of responsibility, and moving from a focus on prestige to a focus on learning.

The call to shift from rhetoric to performance is fundamental to realizing a true transformation. Countless institutions currently employ the rhetoric of the new paradigm in their mission statements, yet very few, if any, institutions can verify that performance has changed. A review of several institutions’ mission statements and the individual mission statements of their colleges revealed an inconsistency of purpose. One university that espoused the goal of becoming learning-centered displayed college mission statements that were quite the contrary. The College of Education at this institution used the phrase “deliver high quality instruction” in its mission, and the College of Arts and Sciences at the same institution used the phrase “receive instruction from professional faculty.” This inconsistency in language suggests an inconsistency of purpose.

Administrators must have a deep understanding of and commitment to the challenge in order to adequately support and guide faculty initiatives. Deep learning is active by nature; it requires searching and assimilating new knowledge into old frameworks and making connections. It is best achieved through community, through the interaction of peers thinking about thinking. This should be our guide for leadership training: developing communities of inquiry in order to fully understand the learner-centered paradigm, and work collaboratively, not just among administrators, but with faculty and policy makers to discover the implications of this shift for higher education. It is for that reason that professional development and leadership training are keys to the success of the transition of higher education to a new paradigm.

Crutcher, R., O’Brien, P., Corrigan, R. & Schneider, C. (2007) College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise. Washington, D.C.: AASCU.

Newman, F., Courtier, L. & Scurry, J. (2004) The Future of Higher Education: Rhetoric, Reality and the Risks of the Market. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Michael Harris is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Kettering University, and Roxanne Cullen is a professor of English at Ferris State University.

Excerpted from Investing in Leadership, Academic Leader, September 2007.