New faculty often enter college classrooms with little training on how to best support student learning. While peer evaluations of teaching are commonly used, these evaluations are often conducted by other faculty who also have little training in the science of learning. In this episode, Aaron Pallas and Anna Neumann join us to discuss how we might build a culture in which we all continue to develop our ability to support our students’ learning. Aaron and Anna are Professors of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. They are also the co-authors of Convergent Teaching: Tools to Spark Deeper Learning in College.
- Pallas, A. M., & Neumann, A. (2019). Convergent teaching: Tools to spark deeper learning in college. Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative
- Association of College and University Educators (ACUE)
- “The Active Learning Initiative at Cornell” – Tea for Teaching podcast with Doug McKee (1/27/2018)
John: New faculty often enter college classrooms with little training on how to best support student learning. While peer evaluations of teaching are commonly used, these evaluations are often conducted by other faculty who also have little training in the science of learning. In this episode, we discuss how we might build a culture in which we all continue to develop our ability to support our students’ learning.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York
Fiona: My name is Fiona Coll. I teach in the Department of English and Creative Writing here at SUNY-Oswego and
this is my turn to sit in as a guest host.
John: Our guests today are Aaron Pallas and Anna Neumann. Aaron and Anna are Professors of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. They are also the co-authors of Convergent Teaching: Tools to Spark Deeper Learning in College. Welcome.
Aaron: Thank you.
Fiona: Today’s teas are:
Aaron: For me, it’s a ginger and turmeric herbal tea.
Anna: Mine is a peppermint tea.
Fiona: I am drinking something called peppermint bark.
John: And detecting a pattern, I have a peppermint and spearmint blended tea today. We’ve invited you here today to talk about Convergent Teaching. You begin this book with a story about one faculty member’s introduction to teaching in higher ed, and that experience seemed to characterize the experience of many people when they first started teaching… certainly it characterizes mine. Could you tell us a little bit about that story?
Aaron: Sure. We open the book with a fictitious vignette about a tenure-track professor, who we call Chris Felton, who obtains a tenure-track job in the political science department at Roseville University, a small private institution in the Midwest. And he’d been a TA in graduate school, but he had no formal preparation for college-level teaching, because what he learned as a doctoral student was how to study political science, not how to teach it. He wasn’t given much guidance about what to do in the classroom once he started his job. The
department didn’t discuss teaching at its monthly faculty meetings, and what his colleagues hoped that students would learn in the introductory courses, or even cumulatively as a political science major, was never addressed publicly. He had heard that there was some kind of teaching center on campus, but it seems to be directed at
faculty who have been flagged as weak teachers, and that’s not how he saw. Chris understood the key contradiction of faculty life at many institutions, and that is he was hired to teach, but his prospects for
promotion and tenure would be judged primarily on the basis of his research productivity. There were no incentives to be a great teacher, there were only incentives not to be an awful one, and although he took his teaching seriously, thinking carefully about class readings and assignments, he was mainly flying blind. He worried especially about how to translate complex political ideas, so that they’d be comprehensible to students who had never been exposed to political science as a discipline. Which topic should he start with? How could he
get the concepts and theories without turning off his students? How could he assess, in the middle of the class in real time, that students were picking things up without disrupting the flow of discussion in the class? These were all mysteries to him. And although he knew that there were journals in the field that dealt with the teaching of political science, he looked at them, didn’t really see things that seemed to be relevant to the issues that he was struggling with. Perhaps, he thought, Roseville’s mandatory teaching observation system could help. Once a year, a senior colleague came into his class to observe him teach, but he was never really sure what the colleague was looking for. There were no written guidelines for the observer that he knew of, no training that the observer had had, but Roseville’s policies required that junior faculty be observed once annually. And the senior colleague would smile and nod as she walked out of the classroom, but Chris got no formal feedback from her on the class, and when he had his annual meeting with the department chair, the observation wasn’t even mentioned. Roseville encouraged undergraduates to fill out course evaluations, as so many institutions do, and Chris’s ratings fell in the satisfactory range. So in some classes, he seemed to be doing quite well. But for the most part, the comments on these evaluations provided little insight into whether and what his students were actually learning. They talked about how much reading assigned, number of papers, things that they liked, but not much guidance about how he might improve his practice and he wondered if he should be doing something fundamentally different in the classroom, but he really didn’t know how to go forward.
So that’s the vignette that we opened the book with and we do think that it does characterize the experience of great many college faculty upon starting careers as college teachers.
Fiona: It is a very illuminating way to address this paradox, that our day-to-day work as faculty members involves so much teaching, and yet, it’s a mystery, as you say, many of us come to it without much guidance. Why do you think institutions of higher education dedicate so few resources to teaching?
Aaron: I think it’s partly a function of institutions focusing on their faculty’s mastery of subject matter and viewing that as the most important thing about teaching, teachers know their subjects without realizing that there’s a lot more to teaching than knowing your subject, that’s necessary, but not sufficient, and no one has really taken on the responsibility in investing in cultivating faculty teaching. You see this disjuncture where the graduate schools that prepare faculty aren’t doing it, and the institutions that hire them aren’t doing it either. And I think that there is a cost issue. Doing it well, as you all know, investing in helping faculty develop as teachers is not a cost-free enterprise, and most institutions, I think, don’t believe that they have the resources to devote to large-scale teaching improvement.
Anna: There’s one additional issue that’s larger than institutions, and that is that teaching is an extremely complex endeavor, so that we have books and seminars and other podcasts that speak to aspects of how to do some particular thing about teaching well, but there are very few, call it theories, of overall approaches to teaching that can be taught to junior faculty or individuals wishing to somehow get the larger lay of the land. And it’s not just about knowing, say, how to work with groups, or how to call on people equally in a classroom, or how to manage activity in the classroom. It’s a matter of being able to integrate many relevant things. And the fact that that kind of a theory has been missing has made it difficult for institutions and other organizations or people to really think about, “How do we go about improving teaching?”
Aaron: Yeah, I would say that we don’t have a common vocabulary for teaching and learning in colleges and universities. It’s difficult to measure to begin with, for lots of reasons. And why do institutions focus on other things? Well, other things are easier to count. It’s easier to to figure out the millions of dollars that an institution garners in external grants or the number of books and articles its faculty published, but figuring out what’s a good metric for good teaching and what students are learning is something that has eluded us so far, in part because we don’t have this common vocabulary.
Anna: I will say that there is a very good body of work out there on students’ learning in schools. So I don’t want to say that that doesn’t exist, it definitely does exist. The work that’s been done on teaching that’s come out of that can infer how we go about supporting learning, but we are still missing some broader strategies for putting the many different pieces of teaching together in such a way that it can be taught to faculty who want to improve their teaching.
Fiona: And one of the remarkable interventions that your book Convergent Teaching does is to start to put together that larger picture to perhaps develop something like a common vocabulary, and I was struck by how early on in that conversation, you introduced this concept you call American ambivalence about higher education,
generally speaking. Could you describe what you mean by American ambivalence?
Aaron: Sure. American ambivalence is the term that we use to represent the fact that there’s a continued high demand for post- secondary education in the U.S., but declining confidence in the American higher education system, and its ability to deliver on the American dream. Americans have long viewed education, and higher
education in particular, as the best route to getting ahead in American society and moving up, particularly for those who have faced structural barriers to their upward mobility, and we’ve also viewed education as the engine of the economy. If you look at presidential speeches about education over the past 6 years, that’s what they talk about: education is how you get ahead, it’s a route to social mobility, and it’s what we collectively depend on to keep our economy going. That kind of rhetoric puts an awful lot of weight on the education system to solve social problems, to affect things that are probably far beyond its capacity… and we have seen growing economic inequality in the U.S. over time, more and more young adults struggling to secure stable and secure
jobs, much as their parents did, and that can allow them to make a decent living and coupled with the rising costs of post secondary education, which for public institutions has coincided with reduced state and public investments in higher education, college seems riskier and riskier. It’s still clearly, on average, a good investment for almost everybody, but changes in technology, making our economy seem riskier with the gig economy and less stable pathways to work, make it harder to see a predictable path to getting ahead just via education.
So that’s the American ambivalence story and in response to that we see a variety of reform proposals coming forward, and part of the argument for our book is that the major reform proposals ignore the centrality of college teaching.
John: Could you talk a little bit about those, you focus on three approaches that are often suggested: powering it up, staying the course, and blowing it up? Could you tell us a little bit about each of those and why they don’t work so well?
Aaron: Sure. Powering it up is basically the term we use to describe proposals that place their faith in technology as the means to transform higher education with a modern internet, artificial intelligence and big
data, and these proposals emphasize vocational outcomes and preparation for work, and they sometimes do attend to learning, they think about “How can we customize a learning experience for students using adaptive machine learning techniques and a variety of other fancy high-powered tools?” You can sense perhaps from the way I
described that I’m a little skeptical, but they don’t talk about teaching. And so you can envision and some of these views are quite forward looking, the potential for big data to customize learning experiences to create the real-time records of competence that could be used as a kind of online competency set of badges or transcripts that would help match students to jobs in the labor market, but the reality is we’re not there yet.
It’s quite some distance away in the future and the proponents of this approach don’t always acknowledge that technological advances, even things like online classrooms seem to work best for those who are already advantaged. They don’t seem to work as well for those who are starting out from lower starting points, and the other thing is that it’s often argued that this is cheaper, but we also know that it’s not always cheaper. Technology has not always proven to be a more efficient way of educating students.
John: Certainly in terms of online education, that’s true, that it does seem to advantage those who come from continuing- generation households and those who have stronger preparations, but I would just say that there is at least some evidence that adaptive learning techniques can help narrow the achievement gaps between first- and continuing-generation students. There are some shortcomings with it: it doesn’t provide the same sense of community, the same sense of engagement, and those are issues that perhaps need to be addressed by not relying exclusively on those. But, I think some techniques do seem to be successful in at least reducing that gap, but they’re certainly far from being cure alls, and they’re certainly far from being perfect in these goals.
Aaron: So the other sort of major reform initiatives that we mentioned in the book, the one that was kind of the response to what we call the techno optimists we label “staying the course,” and this is basically the defenders of the liberal arts, the people who defend the idea that higher education is a site for critical thinking and the search for meaning in life, and that we should be focusing on higher education as a means for developing the person and not narrowly on preparing them for jobs. And again, it’s not a perspective that says jobs aren’t important, we all want to have good, stable, secure jobs, but it’s a move away from a narrowly instrumental view of the purpose of higher education and emphasizing the importance of liberal arts and, frankly,, learning
disciplinary knowledge and the benefits of exposure to the structure of discipline, not any particular discipline, because one can learn a lot from studying any discipline and empowered organizer’s knowledge. And then the final theme is the radical version of, what we called blowing it up. And, John, you’re an economist, you may be familiar with Bryan Caplan, who’s a controversial economist who argued that students don’t learn much of anything in college, let alone things that contribute to their workplace productivity, and so his argument is
we should reduce public investments in higher education overall, that college doesn’t really work for anybody very well, and we hear his argument, but we don’t buy it.
John: He’s a bit of an outlier in economics too, most economists argue that we’ve seen some really growing and significant returns to investment in education, and it explains a great deal of the growth in income inequality. So there’s not a lot of economists who really fully buy into his arguments.
Fiona: So if this landscape you describe is missing this vital piece of the higher education puzzle, which is teaching, tell us how you imagine putting teaching back into the picture.
Aaron: Putting teaching back into the picture begins with the recognition that good teaching does matter, and there’s actually a large body of evidence that shows that good teaching does affect students’ learning outcomes, that we’re still kind of collectively hamstrung by the fact that we don’t always agree on what should be learned in college. And we don’t always have good assessments of what students have learned in particular subject areas, or even in the realm of broader critical thinking skills, but in spite of that, we know that teaching practice is related to student learning, and we know this extensively from the literature of K-12 education, which we often use to try to transpose what we think we should be able to demonstrate and know in the world of higher education as well.
Anna: And, to stepping back from that a moment and attending also to the three strategies that Aaron laid out a few minutes ago as sort of prominent right now, especially the one on techno-optimists. There’s attention there to students’ learning to some degree, And I mentioned to you that there’s been a fair amount of research done on students’ learning, but we are actively bringing the teacher and teaching back into the picture. One of the underlying assumptions of this view is that while there is a good amount of learning that people can do on their
own, and I certainly don’t want to argue with that view, that truly making learning available to the broad public and to people who are underrepresented in American higher education, support for learning is absolutely essential. That, in our view, typically comes from human beings and those human beings are those who support learning and supporting learning is what we mean by teaching. And so, as simple as this may sound, we’re basically saying that teaching matters and that finding ways to bring together some of the key things that we know about teaching into an overarching theory of good teaching is where we’re trying to take this.
John: And the way you take that, I think, is by focusing on three aspects of teaching, targeting, surfacing and navigating. Could you talk a little bit about each of those? It seems like a pretty reasonable way of classifying things.
Anna: This is not something we’ve pulled out of the sky, nor is it something that we necessarily drew purely from our own practice. I’ve been working with instructors through the larger New York metro area and in a number of other places as well, trying to help them in improving their teaching… sitting in on classrooms. We’ve also
reviewed the literature on human learning and ways to facilitate that, and one of the things that we realize is that there, and this goes back to some basic research on learning, and that some critical elements of how people learn includes there’s got to be a learner, there’s got to be something that you learn, there’s got to be subject matter, a teacher or someone who supports learning is in the picture, and we need to take into consideration the larger context or milieu in which learning happens, because that can shape any number of things. Now, given that, the thing that often falls out of conversations about learning and support for learning, namely teaching, is, frankly, the question of what’s learned, what is taught and with little systematic attention to which ideas we teach, and why, with regard to what it is that students need to learn. One of the first things that I noticed is that the expert instructors who really seem to be getting through to their students are giving a whole lot of attention to identifying what we call core concepts in the discipline. In other words, are there particular ideas or ways of thinking that, in essence, you could say either they’re a building block of the field or they model the field, they model thinking in the field. So for example, we could argue that thinking in economics is quite distinctive and that it differs in systematic and interesting ways, say from thinking in English literature, or in sociology for that matter or chemistry. When a student is in a chemistry class or a sociology class or an English Lit class or economics class, the question of deciding where
to begin the teaching can begin with an instructor figuring out what some core ideas are that that instructor can target, and then teaching those ideas very deeply and carefully in many different ways, sometimes more than once, using different texts, using different exercises, using different assignments and then building out from
those core ideas, either to other topics that resonate with what we saw on the core idea or that argue with them. And so targeting refers to the effort by an instructor to literally target, to identify those core ideas.
There’s a second activity here and that we refer to as surfacing, this moves attention from the subject matter to the students. We all know that students do not walk into a class empty headed, we cannot assume that we are laying subject matter on them. They come in knowing something, they come in with knowledge from their homes, from their cultures, from their lives. And some of those things that they bring from their lives can serve as a starting point for learning the ideas that are in the text that we want to teach, the core ideas that we want to
teach, and if we manage to identify those aspects of their lives that can be used as entry points or doorways into teaching of those core ideas, then we have a foothold, we have someplace to start with them. That’s what we mean by surfacing, surfacing in students that prior knowledge that can be used as a stepping stone into the learning of new ideas. There’s more I could say about that because prior knowledge can also get in the way, but that’s for another podcast.
John: But even then, just to briefly address that, when you’re trying to connect to prior knowledge, sometimes those are barriers that have to be
onfronted and perhaps students need to address those things in order to make progress. So, I think it’s good to point out that you’re teaching students who come in, as you said, with pre-existing views of how the world works. Some of those are good building blocks, some of them need to be knocked down a little bit, sometimes gently, but you need to get a solid foundation to build up.
Anna: That’s a very challenging thing to do, because you don’t want to be disrespectful, and often a good part of learning is figuring out how to hold on to your personal life, your personal values, personal meanings, while somehow getting a grip on a different way to think about things.
Aaron: And it can be threatening, scary, anxiety provoking, our term convergent teaching has two different meanings. One is the convergence of subject matter, learner and context (the milieu in which the learning takes place), but the other is the joint attention to cognition, emotion, and identity that teachers have to think
about as attributes of individual learners. Because sometimes you’re asking students to confront ideas that are scary, that are threatening, and that is a challenge, but it is part of moving them from what they already think they know to where you want them to get to.
John: In our increasingly polarized world, that’s particularly an issue, although it always has been to some extent.
Anna: And that, by the way, begins to speak to navigating… the third activity, which in essence is sort of steering between those core subject matter ideas and students’ prior knowledge and on the one hand, bringing in appropriate images, representations, text, videos, lecture, whatever you do that you do well in class… activities, assignments toward helping students come face-to-face with those particular ideas… steering before that and getting a handle on what students are bringing and figuring out how to put these pieces together.
Fiona: I’d like to ask you to maybe give an example or two of something that might be involved in targeting, surfacing or navigating, but I wonder if I might begin by asking how explicit you might be with students about these approaches? In the example that Aaron gives from his own teaching, there’s a moment where you describe breaking the fourth wall and talking to students about the very nature of what you’re doing as a teacher. How important is that metacognitive piece for teaching?
Aaron: That’s a great question. I think that the example that I gave about targeting did originate in an actual class where I was teaching introductory statistics and figured out that the middle of a distribution was a fundamental concept that was going to be a building block for all sorts of things in basic descriptive and inferential statistics and learned the hard way that the kind of rote way of teaching it, students could
memorize formulas and produce correct answers but didn’t really understand the middle or why a particular statistic was a good representation of the middle. I think it’s helpful for students to know what’s coming. You can think of it, a little bit, as scaffolding of students as they move from what they already know to where you want to get them to.
Anna: It’s a complicated question that I have thought about several times in my own teaching. So speaking from that, to be honest, I think it’s a judgment call, and this is something I want to keep an eye on as I keep doing this work. I’m nowhere near finishing it, and that is that I don’t often give them an abstract lay of the land, largely because I fear that they will put it in a bottle aside from real life. I want them to deal with real life. I want them to know that they know something that’s of value in the class. And so we work at a very basic level and then I start moving them up to ideas, up to concepts. Later on in the semester when I’m done that kind of thing a couple of times and one or two students catches on and says it in class, which they catch me at
times, then at that point, I may stop and explain, but as a teacher it is what I am doing. So that’s an example, but I do purposefully articulate what it is that I’m up to. Now, I like to think of myself as teaching largely inductively, but there are times that I just sort of have to stop and explain what the heck it is I’m doing.
Fiona: Could you tell us a little bit about some effective strategies for surfacing?
Anna: That’s a good question, the most effective strategy that I have found, there are a couple of things that I’ve seen done. One is that at the beginning of the course, I simply write out a list of questions that I view as some of the core ideas in my class and have people write initial responses, and then we have an hour-long conversation about them without my interrupting. And sometimes at the end of the semester, I’ll return those sheets to them, and they’ll remember what they said in that first class. But some of the best way, that becomes a place for me to go about, you know, fishing for prior knowledge is frankly, class discussions. And I never, you know, just sort of open it up to anything, I typically have thought through the questions that I’m going to
use to open discussion with, and to move it along with, but then I spend a lot of time listening, and to the extent that I can, when I hear a student say something that might be usable, I might ask them to say more, I’ll put them in groups and then I’ll go listen to that little group where the student is sitting and that begins to give me a little bit of a handle on how they’re thinking about this thing. There are times when they will offer, say prior knowledge from pop culture that I’ve never heard of. I don’t live in that world, I acknowledge that, I recall one particular instance where I can’t even recall what we were talking about, but the student said, “Oh, that’s like a meme.” My response was, “Oh, what the heck is a meme? What do you mean by that?” And they had to teach that to me, but that then became a stepping off point for the act of teaching whatever I was doing at the time, which I’m not recalling.
Aaron: I do something similar, I think, often starting a class asking students what do you think you already know about x, where x is a concept that I know I’m going to be invested in developing through the course of the semester just to get an idea about initial beliefs and assumptions. We also are cognizant of the fact that in many institutional settings, there’s a lot of social distance between faculty and their students, students are often from different backgrounds than the faculty and have had very different life experiences. And of course,
it’s always a risk to generalize, you can learn a lot by taking a student out to lunch or coffee and just hearing them talk about their experiences in their lives in ways that may surprisingly be able to connect with you to their beliefs about disciplinary knowledge.
John: One other thing that you talk about in your book is the issue of addressing the needs of the rising proportion of adjunct faculty in college. With a focus on teaching, it’s important to develop their skills, but often these are people who come in at night who teach one or two courses at each institution and they may be teaching at three or four, sometimes even five institutions. What can we do to help improve their work and to help them be more productive in some very challenging circumstances?
Aaron: They are challenging circumstances, we know that contingent faculty adjuncts are second- class citizens on most institutional campuses. They don’t have access to some of the same basic resources that regular full-time faculty do, even things like office space to be able to meet with students for office hours or access to computers or phones or things like that. And they are often on the road, which makes it hard to even envision how do you get them to a department meeting of the regular faculty because they may be teaching at another campus at that time of day. I think the big issue is we have to recognize that increasingly, institutions are relying on contingent faculty to teach more and more courses and more and more students and that’s true across all institutional types, and institutions need to get serious about investing in developing adjunct faculty. There are campuses where campus centers for teaching and learning, which we are big fans of, recognize are often under budgeted are simply unable to offer the kinds of services that they make available to regular faculty to adjuncts, and we have a rough back of the envelope calculation that suggests that in order to give contingent faculty the same level of access or participation as full-time tenure-track faculty, you might have to double the campus’s budget for teaching improvement. And most campuses don’t have slack piles of money lying around, but the reality is if you’re concerned about teaching and you know that adjuncts increasingly are bearing the burden, the idea that tenure-track faculty can benefit from supervision, support, observation, coaching, but contingent faculty can’t, that’s ridiculous.
John: What types of support can campuses provide to help improve the quality of teaching? You mentioned teaching centers, we’re a fan of those too, or at least I am [LAUGHTER], but there’s a lot more that campuses perhaps could do and teaching centers often have very limited staffing and budget. So what are some approaches that could be used to provide more support for faculty?
Aaron: I think the biggest is a realignment of faculty reward systems that recognize the importance of good teaching, and limit reliance on student evaluations of teaching as evidence of good teaching. Virtually every institution has student ratings of instruction, that’s not going away. But far too many institutions rely on that as the primary metric for judging whether someone is a good teacher… used in high stakes situations for contingent faculty and tenure-track faculty alike, and the thing about student ratings is they provide very little guidance as to how to get better, even well designed forms, and there’s clearly a variation in the quality of what actually gets asked on a student form. They’re used for summative purposes, rather than for helping faculty actually do better in the class. So, I think we need to think about other ways of doing that. We’re big fans of peer observation, of ways of having faculty benefit from having peers observe them in the classroom and engage in structured observations followed by conversations about “What happened here? Why did you do this? Do you think it worked? What might have happened if you had done it differently?” as one part of a strategy coupled with other things that most of which boil down to making teaching a more public and accountable activity, but accountable to peers, accountable to other faculty who have expert knowledge about subject matter and about pedagogy.
Anna: You know, the only thing that I would add to that is that while I am a great fan of evaluations and self evaluations or peer evaluations, sometimes whether it’s evaluation or assessment it’s confused with
instructional development. They’re not the same thing. Just because you’re assessing something doesn’t mean that that’s a straight route into improving teaching. Just because you assess something doesn’t mean things will get better. There is real activity that’s involved in making teaching better and backing up from that, you need to
understand what it is, what it would look like.
Aaron: Teaching improvement requires sustained activity. In the K-12 world there are kind of derogatory references to one-off professional development sessions where you’ve got some speaker in front of an auditorium of 300 teachers for two hours, and the belief that that’s going to somehow transform practice, it never happens. You have to think about teaching improvement as a longitudinal process that involves sustained effort over a good period of time, sustained engagement with others who can help you think about practice and obviously, some teaching centers have strategies for doing that. I know Oswego, you’ve got this teaching squares initiative, which in many respects, parallels our ideas about peer observation, bringing faculty into conversation about concrete examples of classroom practice that they have shared together from observation. There are a few, I think, initiatives that are becoming more common. I think Oswego has a cohort for ACUE, the Association of College and University Educators, which is a structured program that allows a cohort of faculty to engage with one another around a range of teaching practices. And again, it’s not something that happens within two hours. It’s sustained. I think, John, you’re running a bunch of these through the course of the semester or a year. And that’s another approach that recognizes the benefit of engaging with peers and sustained engagement with
teaching practice concern.
John: The ACUE program has been really successful on our campus, we’ve had a cohort of, I believe, close to 30 people go through it last year, and we’ve got our second cohort now of, I believe, 28 people moving through it, and it’s a 25-week program, and it does provide that type of sustained involvement or engagement. And also Anna mentioned how she often will try to surface things at the beginning of an activity. One of the nice things about the ACUE modules is they all start by having faculty address their preconceptions about the topic before actually addressing them and providing research and examples. There’s a lot to be said for that approach and people participating in this program automatically picked it up just by observation. You
also mentioned the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative as providing a nice set of tools. Could you talk just a little bit about that?
Aaron: Carl Wieman is a world renowned physicist who has taught at University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of British Columbia. And he developed an initiative at those two campuses that involved trying to create sustained improvement in science education by offering a competitive grants program to the science departments in both schools that would allow them to hire a science education specialist, basically postdoctoral fellows with disciplinary knowledge whose job was to help develop courses, to improve often introductory courses in the sciences on each campus, and they were sizable awards, department might get a million dollars over five years to help do this. What he discovered is that he was underestimating the importance of incentives for individual faculty, that the unit of change he thought, eventually, was really the faculty member more so than the course… in part because courses, they’re owned by departments more so than by faculty, they’re a little bit harder to move. And he came to the view that you could start with those faculty who seemingly were interested in changing their practice, figure out ways to provide them with incentives to work on their courses in the form of compensation, of course releases, supplemental research assistance and the like, as a mechanism for getting them to work at their teaching. The initiative was about $15 million across the two campuses. It’s hard to sustain, he found that it wasn’t well aligned with the campus’ culturally inscribed reward structures for faculty, it was still the case that research productivity dominated how faculty were evaluated, so it wasn’t
well coordinated with that. And it benefited when there were senior administrators at the Provost level, or similar levels, who were vocal and public about their commitments to trying to improve teaching. So it’s a kind of cautionary tale and I think that he can point to the fact that thousands of students were exposed to courses that had benefited from this kind of effort, but it wasn’t clear that it was going to be sustainable with a large concentration of faculty once the money ran out.
John: I should note that we also had a discussion with Doug McKee in one of our earlier podcasts, we talked about an implementation of that program at Cornell. The title of that was “The Cornell Active Learning Initiative,” which basically built upon that, in fact, I believe that Doug and some other people from Cornell went to a workshop that Carl Wieman offered, and that’s still underway, it’s still under development. I haven’t heard as much about the results, but that’s something we should probably check back with Doug about at some point.
Aaron: I think that Wieman, by virtue of his stature, was able to find the money, to get institutions to support these big initiatives. You don’t see institutions investing in teaching improvement to the tune of five to ten million in just the sciences, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t imagine that in other fields of study as well, finding the money and finding the institutional support is a big issue.
Fiona: One of the downsides of the incredible richness of this book is that it’s hard to package it all in a very short conversation like this. Is there anything we haven’t mentioned that you’d really like to talk about?
Aaron: I think perhaps it’s recognizing that, for lack of a better term, it takes a village… that teaching improvement is a shared responsibility of the institutions that prepare future faculty, of the institutions that
hire future faculty, of disciplinary associations, of the federal government and its ability to generate the sources for the studying of teaching and learning in colleges and universities, philanthropic organizations, and individual faculty as well. No one group can do this. We do offer at the end of the books some guidance for what individual faculty themselves can do, starting with reading the book, of course… [LAUGHTER] but also in the context of their campuses, the kinds of likely local supports that they can seek out in their immediate
surrounds, which can be the disciplinary associations with which they’re affiliated, or a campus teaching center, or colleagues who they just discover are passionate about teaching. All those are things that we think individual faculty can leverage, but no one can do it alone.
Anna: And I think I’ll add one thing that’s really more an idea than anything else. And that is that I spent a number of years studying learning. And one of the things that my students and I sometimes struggle with is the idea that one never learns fully alone. Even if you’re in a quiet room with the book in front of you. You’re there with the author. You’re there with the author’s thinking, the author’s thinking comes to you in whatever way. But, the point here being that teaching is a way of bringing another person into an individual’s learning
and that that individual, if that individual has thought a lot about how people learn, and how to support people’s learning, that that learning can be extended and deepened in a number of rich ways. So, I think of
teaching as part of a larger learning experience. And I guess that’s where I would want to end that.
Fiona: Thank you for that reminder that unfortunately, necessary reminder that we’re talking about people in all of this.
John: We always end our podcast with the question: What’s next?
Anna: I want to continue to study teaching and learning. Teaching is the advancement of students’ learning. I’ve done this for a number of years in colleges, largely those that serve underrepresented learners, undergraduate institutions, and I will always be interested in those institutions. More recently, I’ve thought about improving teaching in law schools that also serve underrepresented populations. There are a number of those and I have been in contact with a number of law school faculty who are very eager to improve their teaching. And that strikes me as an important route into the future. The fact of the matter is that we want to bring new populations into undergraduate education, but we want them to go on as well. And that will involve improving
teaching and diverse sites.
Aaron: For me, most of my work is on K-12 schooling. And throughout the book, we draw on the literature on K-12 teaching and learning and organization to inform what we think might happen in higher ed. And so I’m often anticipating what’s going to move from the K-12 world to the higher ed world. Sometimes that’s a little dystopian. And the current sort of dystopia that I’m working on is how K-12 classroom teachers are evaluated, of the kinds of accountability mechanisms that exist in New York State and New York City that they are subject to and how they experience these accountability systems, and with what consequences for their orientations towards improving their practice. My suspicion is that, as is often the case, if it’s happening in the K-12 world, the higher ed world may not be that far behind.
Fiona: They sound like incredibly important directions to go.
John: …and as one form of convergent teaching: convergence between K-12 and college teaching.
John: Well, thank you very much for joining us. I very much enjoyed reading your book, and I’m happy we’re able to share this with our listeners.
Aaron: Well, thank you so much.
Anna: Thank you very much. We’ve enjoyed talking to you.
Fiona: It’s been an absolute privilege to speak with you. Thank you so much.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Savannah Norton.