VIA the Chronicle of Higher Ed: Teaching: a “good deed most punished,” or an “innovative approaches”?

If you want to experience a real whipsaw effect, read these two accounts of teaching in higher ed, the first from a Promotion and Tenure advice columnist in the Chronicle, the second an account of a teaching and learning conference just held at Harvard.

The first comes out with statements like the following:

High on any Top 10 list of the most frequent advice offered to young faculty members is this: No good deed goes unpunished.

The aphorism at first seems cynical, pessimistic, dysfunctional. Doing good, as members of a higher-education community, is our job. What if everyone just looked out for No. 1? The entire promotion-and-tenure system—which depends on altruistic volunteerism—would collapse. Nevertheless, there are many situations where taking too much time, trying too hard to do good, or doing good for the wrong reasons or for the wrong person can lead to career trouble, or worse.

The account of the highminded and undeniably expensive model of teaching at Harvard is equally compelling, but seems to be taking place in another universe:

Too often, faculty members teach according to habits and hunches, said Carl E. Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who has extensively studied how to improve science education.

In large part, the problem is that graduate students pursuing their doctorates get little or no training in how students learn. When these graduate students become faculty members, he said, they might think about the content they want students to learn, but not the cognitive capabilities they want them to develop.

“It really requires someone to be doubly expert,” Mr. Wieman said. As sometimes happens in some disciplines and departments, a few people develop deeper knowledge of pedagogy. These doubly expert faculty members, he said, can show colleagues how to apply new approaches to teaching the discipline.

Such approaches would demand much more of students and faculty. Students should be made to grapple with the material and receive authentic and explicit practice in thinking like an expert, Mr. Wieman said. Faculty would need to provide timely and specific feedback, and move beyond lectures in which students can sit passively receiving information.

So how might we reconcile these contradictory pieces of advice, which seem equally plausible, depending on your institution of employment?  Is it simply a matter of a two-tier education system that values engagement, but only for the students whose parents can afford it, or can these expectations of engagement for both faculty and students be applied across the board?  Which will it be?

DM

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