April 24th, 2008

New Paradigm Emphasizes Teacher’s Role as Instructional Designer


“What professors do in their classes matters far less than what they ask students to do.”

Talk about a paradigm shift—a change in perspective that can transform thinking. For decades the focus has been on teaching. We have tried to improve learning by becoming better teachers. Research supported those efforts by identifying the components of effective instruction—organization, clarity, enthusiasm, etc. My career in faculty development was devoted to helping faculty develop this kind of instructional skills. We based our efforts on the assumption that learning was the inevitable, automatic outcome of good teaching. Some truth resides in that assumption. Organization, instructional coherence does affect learning outcomes.

But what a difference when the paradigm shifts and proposes that what professors do in class matters, but it matters far less than what students do. When students write papers, prepare for exams, complete projects in groups, they have a firsthand, up-close encounter with content and this new perspective puts those learning activities front and center. This makes the teacher’s role as instructional designer central. That’s a different role for teachers—not one we’re used to or trained for (so what else is new?). It’s not a diminished or less important role but it does emphasize a different skill set and it changes the perspective of the teacher.

At mid career when we’ve got everything down pat, a significant change in perspective, a new way of orienting to an old task is not a bad thing—especially when the opening zinger is one of 10 empirically validated principles derived from research in the learning sciences and proposed by an especially prestigious group of cognitive scientists.

Reference: Halpern, D. F., and Hakel, M. D. (2003). Applying the science of learning to the university and beyond. Change, (July-August), 36-42.