June 26th, 2013

Dead Ideas That Limit Teaching and Learning


Dead ideas that limit teaching and learning—that was the topic of Professor Diane Pike’s plenary session at the recent Teaching Professor Conference. There’s a tyranny associated with dead ideas. They limit and constrain our thinking, and can lead us in the wrong direction. An idea may pass on without us noticing, and discovering it is dead can be provocative. Consider, for example, these three ideas that Pike proposed.

It is permissible to allow convenience to trump quality. “Too often [in higher education] convenience is the driver.” Her example: online learning. Pike challenged us to “carefully examine the reasons for moving to courses where a student can, at the last minute, show up face-to-face or do the online version of that session.” Is that a decision students should be making? Does being in class or online change what and how students learn? She pointed out that the convenience rationale is frequently used to characterize online learning as nothing more than a different delivery mode. It’s the same course, just delivered in a different way. “Well, maybe it is the same course but that doesn’t mean it’s the same learning experience.” Here’s the example she used to make the point: You can spend 24 hours getting to your destination in a Greyhound bus or you can fly three hours in business class. The destination may be the same, but how you get there makes a big difference. Her conclusion: “If we fail to question the limits of convenience and too easily presume comparable quality, we won’t be serving the students as we claim.”

Subject matter expertise is more important than teaching skill. “The tyranny of failing to privilege teaching expertise at least at the same level as content expertise for all categories of faculty is still more widespread than it should be.” Successfully running a business does not qualify someone to teach any more than having a new PhD with lots of research experience prepares one to face students in a classroom. “What is the balance between knowing a discipline and having a lot of personal expertise?” Pike asked.

The dominance of subject matter expertise has a long standing tradition in higher education. Pike did acknowledge that some progress has been made in redressing the imbalance, but her examples showed that subject expertise prevails in some disturbing iterations. She held up a May 5 New York Times headline that read, “Last Refuge from Scandal? Professorships”. The article pointed out that David Petraeus, Eliot Spitzer, former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, and clothing designer John Galliano (fired from Christian Dior for an outrageous anti-Semitic rant) had all assumed positions in higher education and were teaching. Celebrity cases? Yes. Extreme examples? Yes. But what criteria are we using to determine who’s qualified to teach college students? And are all those criteria equally important?

Learning outcomes are the most important thing. “Learning outcomes are not more important than learning ‘inputs’ such as the texts selected for a course, the resources available, the questions posed, and the qualities of both student and teacher. Nor are they more important than learning experiences, including pedagogical variety, discussion, peer review, and teachable moments.” Pike noted and endorsed the push toward more and better evidence of student learning. However, “If the push for outcomes around career readiness and providing statistics on who is employed, where, and by what major becomes the defining characteristic for what major to study—that would be tyranny.”

She concluded her talk with this summary: “We need technology, content expertise, and outcomes but they aren’t the only things that matter. We need to seize the opportunity to use these ‘disruptions’ to improve all manner of teaching and learning without abandoning the journey—the most effective learning experiences, not the most convenient. To do so, we must continue to critically examine our ideas, gather empirical evidence, accept some changes, and resist others.”

Note: Professor Pike gave a similar address to the Midwest Sociological Society in 2010. That speech, which explores three other dead ideas in teaching and learning, was published in The Sociological Quarterly, 52 (1). And those ideas are just as interesting and provocative as these.

  • Elizabeth in VT

    I'd like a suggest two aspects of "convenience" that may be applicable to the online learning environment.
    == Enforce a single course delivery structure regardless of the discipline.
    == Establish such long lead times for content delivery that a course may lose some of its relevance by the time it's launched.

  • Gayle Nelson

    I understand about the importance of quality over convenience, but how refreshing to hear Professor Pike state that "successfully running a business does not qualify someone to teach any more than having a new PhD with lots of research experience prepares one to face students in a classroom." I agree that we do need to rethink our instructor qualification criteria, and a PhD may not necessarily meet that criterion. Yes our goal needs to aim for the most effective learning experience and education must continually examine our community's motives and our choice of instructional methods. Thank you Dr. Weimer for this good report! g

  • Tom

    Sadly, those ideas aren't dead … they're just outdated.

    • Good point on the phrasing, Tom, though I don't think you're actually disagreeing, with what’s being said.

      However, there's also a good use for the language of "dead" ideas to talk about ideas that are still around but discredited. For instance, in a provocative essay in IJ-SoTL, Michael Potter write: "Though dead, the putrefying corpse of objectivism fills the tombs and sepulchers of academia – the classrooms, the courses, the exams, the textbooks, the laboratories, the concepts" ("Constructivism in the Shadow of a Dead God").

      We would rather have outdated ideas dead and gone than dead and still around ("zombie" ideas?).

      Paul T. Corrigan
      Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

  • azman

    I like the phrase "..it's the experience of the journey that makes the difference rather than reaching the destination ." It's true that the online or the long distsnce learning is very covenient but the learners dont get so much content and softskills compared to those attended conventional classroom learning.

  • Frank

    After 26+ years of teaching, I'm still asking the same questions I did a quarter-century ago. If effective teaching is a skill, why do some teachers (and administrators) encourage our most challenged students to seek help with a minimum wage tutor who only recently was a student learning the material?

  • One question I did have about the address is whether the first idea is actually an idea or just a practice (or at most a "theory-in-practice" as opposed to an "espoused theory"). I almost wish that it were explicitly "an idea" that some folks advocated for so that we could discuss and resist it more openly and directly. I feel that "convenience-trumping-quality" is too often just the way things happen de facto rather than a position someone takes.

    But, as I think about it, perhaps many "dead" ideas in teaching are similarly just the way things are done, though at least some are more explicitly defended by those who want to hand on to them.

    On the other hand, we all always strike a compromise between quality and "convenience" (or cost in terms of time, effort, etc.). The question–and one reason that "convenience" can win so easily–is where one draws the line and there is no clear line where quality ends and convenience begins. Though, I would say, students not learning deeply ought to be where we draw the line. That they currently are not is an inconvenient truth.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

    • Ron Bridges


      You make a great point that we do many things just out practice without fully considering them as any specific idea. This is where the need for reflection comes in: reflecting on why we did certain things as a way to improve upon them.

      Dr. Pike's concept of a dead idea helps us to identify which of our practices might need more reflection.

  • Tom Carlson

    Nopt having attended the conference, I, like many of the commentators above, wonder about the choice of the word "dead" to describe practices which are fully alive and kicking. Could anyone who was there shed some light on why the speaker (Dr. Diane Pike) chose to refer to the status quo as "dead"?

    • Hello Tom,
      According to the article referenced below, Pike explains dead ideas in this way: “Ideas are dead because they are no longer correct, if they ever were. They are tyranny because we cling to them despite the evidence. Thus, we fail to act as we should.” (p. 2)

      Pike. D. L. (2011). The tyranny of dead ideas in teaching and learning: Midwest Sociological Society presidential address 2010. The Sociological Quarterly, 52 (1), 1-12.

      Mary Bart
      Editor, Faculty Focus

      • kmcg2375

        Thanks for the reference 🙂

  • Beverly OMalley

    <It is permissible to allow convenience to trump quality. >
    Never EVER assume that convenience is the same thing as accessibility.
    Offer online education so that students have access to information when they can access ita at the conevneine ttime for them. But do not assume that this is the only time that they will access the lecture.
    Students have told me over and over again, that they appreciate being able to access the lecture online any time they like.
    This may be before and even after the class is offered.
    If they access information before class activities then that lecture information informs what they do in class…if they access the lecture AFTER the class activities then the class discusion informs the lecture.
    Many mMany students access online lecture presentations more than once. They cannot do this if the lecture is only presented in a face to face format.

    • kmcg2375

      This is true. However, when the lectures are poor quality, my students report that they stop engaging in person and online. Quality surely must therefore 'trump' convenience?

  • DanDeHass

    I believe some have a narrow view of online learning. Sadly, many have experienced it as lecture based videos or “talking heads” with some form of assessment. It is true that online learning is not for all students, however done right using good pedagogy and taking advantage of the myriad of tools available, it can be as rich a learning experience as any classroom. Just like there is a need to find or train competent experts who teach well, there is also a need to change our approach to online course development.

    Dan DeHass
    Lifechange Learning

    • Dan, You’re not wrong that people have too narrow a view. But I think that there’s more going on than just baseless stereotyping.

      I think that the phrase "online learning" has actually come to mean the narrow thing that people think when they hear it. To put it another way, online learning has become the common label for that pseudo-educational phenomenon that uses the internet to amplify the ratio of those negatives (such as unmotivated and unprepared students, poorly designed canned courses, overworked adjunct instructors, etc.) already associated with familiar f2f cost-saving "educational" schemes (most notably, large lecture courses).

      That is to say, online learning is not the same thing as learning online. If we want to talk about learning that happens to take place online, we might need a whole new set of terms to talk about it ("learning that happens to take place online" is the least clunky phrase I can think of that's not already been ruined).

      Paul T. Corrigan
      Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.