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.