Talking Teaching

January 24, 2011

changing the culture of science education at research universities

This is a cross-post of something I’ve just written for my ‘other’ blog :)

 That’s the attention-grabbing title of a new paper in Science magazine’s ‘education forum’ section (Anderson et al. 2011). Most readers will know that science education is a subject dear to my heart, & a topic that Marcus & I write on from time to time (here & here, for example). The authors are all professors at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute & are supported by that institution to create ‘new programs that more effectively engage students in learning science’ (ibid), so I was keen to see what they had to say on the topic of raising the profile and status of teaching at the tertiary level.

In the opinion of Anderson & his colleagues (& it’s an opinion that I share)

Science education should not only provide broad content knowledge but also develop analytical thinking skills, offer understanding of the scientific research process, inspire curiosity, and be accessible to a diverse range of students.

 Now, you might think, ‘well, obviously!’, and certainly all my colleagues would agree that these are good aims, but the devil’s in the detail. All institutions have what are called ‘graduate profiles’, & ideally when new curricula are being developed, or existing ones reviewed, their relevance to that graduate profile should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The difficulty, though, is that most university lecturers aren’t trained teachers but have generally ‘picked it up on the job’. They’re not familiar with the science education literature &, with all the pressures on them to generate external funding and maximise their research profile, it’s going to be hard to take the time to find and read relevant material. Heck, at the moment I struggle to find time, and that’s in my research area!

Anderson et al argue that turning this around requires a culture shift at the level of the institutions themselves, suggesting that these institutions need to “more broadly and effectively recognise, reward, and support the efforts of researchers who are also excellent teachers.” They list 7 initiatives that would move things along towards this end.

Educate faculty about research in learning. There’s a wealth of literature out there on ways to enhance teaching and student learning. (I’m reading some of it myself at the moment.) But the key thing here is time. Without time for researchers in any given discipline to sit down & get a a feel for the education literature (without feeling guilty about not spending that time reading in their ‘own’ field, applying for research grants, supporting research students, or teaching…), & to play around with some of the ideas therein, this will be a long, slow process. Maybe a grassroots approach might be better, more engaging? At my institution we’ve got ‘teaching advocates’ (Marcus is one) who organise informal lunchtime sessions for people to sit down & discuss particular teaching approaches, or maybe just throw ideas around. These are good ways of getting discussions going & supporting people in what they’re doing in the classroom.

Create awards and named rofessorships that provide research support for outstanding teachers. Well, we certainly have awards: in-Faculty & cross-campus at this institution & all others I can think of, plus the national Ako Aotearoa awards. And it’s jolly nice to get one, too! But a question that I’d rather like to look into is, what is the wider impact of these awards? They’re nice for the awardee (in a time when the purse-strings are tight, it’s nice to know that you’ll be able to go to a couple of relevant, conferences without having to think too hard about how to fund it!), but do they change the attitudes & perceptions of others on-campus? Do they have a lasting impact on institutional culture?

Require excellence in teaching for promotion. The authors argue, & I agree, that this needs to be a broad-brush approach, not restricted to looking at data from end-semester course appraisals. They say, “[we] must identify the full range of teaching skills and strategies that might be used, describe best practices in the evaluation of teaching effectiveness (particularly approaches that encourage rather than stifle diversity), and define how these might be used and prioritised during the promotion process.” And as part of this we need to encourage people to try new things. There’s a real worry, & risk, that trying something new in the interests of improving your teaching will backfire: if for whatever reason the students don’t like what you’re doing, those end-semester scores may well decline as a result. Which is why these shouldn’t be the only way of measuring teaching quality and effectiveness. (This, of course, requires that the people involved in determing promotion rounds need to be aware of the existence & value of other means of assessing teaching quality.)

Create teaching discussion groups. the teaching advocate meetings run by Marcus & his counterparts, & the institution’s ‘teaching network’ meetings, are developing a nucleus of such groups. Maybe members of these groups might be interested in working on peer assessment of teaching? You can learn an awful lot from watching other experienced practitioners in action – I know I do. It can be a bit nerve-wracking, having another teacher sit in on your classes, but the discussions afterwards can be really rewarding. (In that regard, something like panopto is an excellent tool to aid reflection on your own teaching, if you’d rather someone else didn’t sit in & give you feedback.)

Create cross-disciplinary programs in college-level learning. Or maybe even just cross-disciplinary discussions. When I taught at high school, everyone was involved in staff meetings, so you had plenty of opportunity to talk with people teaching in other subjects. You tend to lose that sort of collegiality in large tertiary institutions, because every Faculty, & sometimes every department, will have its own tearooms & meeting spots. And that’s a pity, really, because unless you go out of your way to meet your counterparts in other parts of the organisation (or even just go to one of their in-house seminars), you can be closed off from some really interesting discussions about research & practice. (But yes, it is hard to find the time. Time, again; that really does seem central to all this.)

Provide ongoing support for effective science teaching. This can potentially be expensive up-front, but has long-term benefits in terms of student engagement & outcomes. Expensive, because students learn science best when they’re engaged in doing science – & this means lab & field work, as often as not.  But how else are students to learn what it is to ‘do’ science, & to become really engaged in that doing?

And finally, Anderson & his colleagues recomment engag[ing] chairs, deans, and presidents (in NZ, a ‘president’ would be a vice-chancellor), because institutional leadership is crucial in bringing about such changes. These leaders – & in fact, all involved in teaching & learning, need to

foster a culture in which teaching and research are no longer seen as being in competition, but as mutually beneficial activities that support two equally important enterprises, generation of new knowledge and education of our students.

Anderson WA, Banerjee U, Drennan CL, Elgin SC, Epstein IR, Handelsman J, Hatfull GF, Losick R, O’Dowd DK, Olivera BM, Strobel SA, Walker GC, & Warner IM (2011). Science education. Changing the culture of science education at research universities. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6014), 152-3 PMID: 21233371

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