Why not have mandatory “toolbox” training?

In a recent meeting with a number of teaching-minded colleagues, one made what – to me – sounded like a rather innocent remark. She suggested that perhaps all new faculty should be required to attend a course about good teaching practices before they begin planning their first courses. Her suggestion was met with an uncomfortable quiet and when I asked others about it afterwards I was informed that this issue was a political hot potato of a sort. Why, because of the notion of academic freedom.

The idea, as I understand it now, seems to go like this. Professors are smart people. No-one should dictate to them how to teach their courses. Having any sort of top-down curriculum would stifle creativity and would make it harder for innovation to occur in the classroom. Well, that’s the flattering take at least. The less flattering one is that professors simply do not want to be told what to do … period.

Here is my counter-argument. I fully support the right of any faculty member to decide exactly how they will support the development of relevant knowledge and skills in their classroom, but I don’t think they have the right to be willfully ignorant about what we have learned about effective teaching. I see no good reason why new faculty especially, and maybe all faculty, shouldn’t be asked to expose themselves to what educational research has shown to be effective teaching strategies, and effective practices for creating classes that provide rich learning experiences. This is a little like informing an artist (although I personally believe teaching is as much science as art) what their tools are, and what each tool is good for. Is it so far-reaching to expect all our faculty get to know the basics of education before they begin planning? I personally think not. You?

5 Responses to “Why not have mandatory “toolbox” training?”

  •  by C. Kingsfield

    Effective teaching — such as the good old-fashioned lecture? See the new Concordia study on the matter. http://ht.ly/eghk6 But, oops, this seems to contradict the emerging soft, feel-good EdFac-style orthodoxy in PSE.

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    •  by Cynthia Williamson

      I’ll admit to not reading the full study from Concordia but the summary makes it sound as though students were asked about their preferences. I wish someone would do a study that actually assesses what was learned. Perhaps the reason that students enjoy lectures rather than more active learning experiences is because active learning is more difficult for them – they cannot just passively sit and listen, they have to particpate. As well, professors are not as comfortable conducting active classes as they are lecturing. That is why they need some teacher training – subject expertise does not make you a good teacher. It is a shame that notions of academic freedom are coming into play here. There is plenty of evidence to show that active learning is better learning.

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  •  by Steve Joordens

    Hey, I would be one of the last to shoot down great lecturing as critical to the academic experience! But even within this domain there are studies that highlight the characteristics of a great lecture that new lecturers could surely take something from, no? There is a science investigating teaching … do we really think the scientific method is valid for all areas except the one we engage in? In that area it’s best left for us to each figure out anew?

    I also can’t resist highlighting that the study you refer to is focused on “student appreciation” which, while being relevant to what we do, is far from the only source of relevance. I appreciate a great scotch and a nice cigar, but my doctor is less impressed because he thinks his job is to help me stay healthy. I think our job is, primarily, to create a rich learning experience.

    A great lecture is the cornerstone of a great learning experience, I agree fully. I also agree that this point sometimes gets lost or overshadowed by some flashy new bit of tech. But should it begin and end there? Should “good lecturing” be all we ask our new faculty to worry about? For example, is the method of assessment they chose to employ completely irrelevant? In turns out there is a rich literature showing that how you assess has a huge impact on what, and how deeply, students learn. What is wrong with making our new faculty aware of this while they are still open minded? And heck, if there are good tools out there to make powerful assessments easy to implement … yes even technological solutions … why leave it for them to discover these on their own?

    Again, I am not arguing for top down control but, rather, in the notion of empowering new faculty by exposing them to relevant information and, in so doing, transmitting our institutions value of the teaching experience.

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  •  by C. Kingsfield

    Fair enough. But I do wonder about the extent to which some contemporary educational approaches are (yes) too inclusive, trying to save (“engage”/”motivate”/”empower”) all comers in a time when university degrees are suffering devaluation because of their overabundance. Maybe we can make learning easier for almost everyone. But, in the now bloated realm of non-compulsory education, should we? The best students can usually handle whatever comes their way. An honest question, as cold as it sounds: Should we focus on the best, or the rest? I don’t find this an easy question at all.

    When I was an undergrad I had a prof who used the fabled Socratic method. He’d ask questions and then wait for student responses until the cows came home. At the time I found the method baffling (I was new to the area), but of course that’s the point. Progress comes by rolling up one’s sleeves and working through perplexity (and in the “real world,” too, not just in egghead academe). But any prof who tries this approach nowadays will probably be met with a student lynch mob.

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  •  by Tatiana

    I do not know if all the teachers will accept MANDATORY training. In France there is none and even training for secondary schools is very limited. Probably younger teachers will accept it more easily. As for me, I will be delighted to have such a (mandatory or optional) course if nobody then forces me to apply some particular method in all contexts:)To know recent developments in the pedagoical field, to be able to know the array of possible tools and techniques that work in particular contexts and then feel free to test/apply/use them or to reject them is a wonderful thing!

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