The opening paragraphs set the tone ...
Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling piece of paper. The instructor speaks from a podium for nearly the entire 80 minutes. Most students take notes. Some scan the Internet. A few doze.It's all about student-centered learning and the writer correctly points out that this is a proven method with lots of research behind it. We've known this for well over a decade. There's hardly any disagreement among pedagogical researchers.
In a nearby hall, an instructor, Catherine Uvarov, peppers students with questions and presses them to explain and expand on their answers. Every few minutes, she has them solve problems in small groups. Running up and down the aisles, she sticks a microphone in front of a startled face, looking for an answer. Students dare not nod off or show up without doing the reading.
Both are introductory chemistry classes at the University of California campus here in Davis, but they present a sharp contrast — the traditional and orderly but dull versus the experimental and engaging but noisy. Breaking from practices that many educators say have proved ineffectual, Dr. Uvarov’s class is part of an effort at a small but growing number of colleges to transform the way science is taught.
So, why aren't we all teaching like this? We are, after all, scientists, and don't scientists make decisions based on evidence?
I don't know the answer. In my own department, for example, there are three faculty members whose primary research interest is undergraduate teaching and three more who are very interested (including me). The six of us have not had much influence on teaching in our undergraduate courses. We still teach our large undergraduate courses in the traditional manner that everyone knows is wrong. My colleagues at other universities have the same experience.
It could be partly due to leadership. Whenever I hear about successful changes in other universities it's almost always because the chair of the department, and the people in charge of undergraduate education, have been advocates of change. Nothing much happens when the leadership is not on board.
Why wouldn't the leaders of science departments be at the forefront of change in the way we teach? It seems like a no-brainer.
There are two obvious reasons. The first is that most leaders are simply unaware of the fact that new and better teaching methods have been developed in the past few decades. Blame that on those of us who do know about such changes. We have not been very successful at communicating these ideas to our colleagues. The second reason is a question of priorities. In research intensive departments, like mine, there is not much incentive to make changes to undergraduate teaching when one is struggling to keep a research lab functioning. Teaching is not a high priority. Changing the way we teach is going to involve a lot of extra work for all instructors and most of my colleagues don't have time for that.
Departmental chairs know this, so even if they are aware of the pedagogical issues they may not do anything about it.
Time is running out. Thanks to articles like the one in The New York Times students are becoming aware of the fact that the traditional ways of teaching are not effective, and, more importantly, professors have known about this for a long time. If today's students weren't so apathetic, we would have had a revolution on our hands years ago.
It probably won't surprise you to discover that people interested in pedagogical research have addressed the issue of impediments to change. Here's a quote from an article by Charlene D'Avanzo (D'Avanzo, 2013) that addresses the lack of response to Vision and Change in Biology education.
My intention is to reveal numerous issues that may well inhibit forward momentum toward real transformation of college-level biology teaching and learning. Some are quite fundamental, such as ongoing dependence on less reliable assessment approaches for professional-development programs and mixed success of active-learning pedagogy by broad populations of biology faculty. I also offer specific suggestions to improve and build on identified issues.One of her points is that faculty need training in the new ways of teaching. It doesn't come naturally. Most of my colleagues, for example, have probably never seen a student-centered classroom in action and most of them wouldn't know how to teach such a class without training. I know that it's taken me many years to figure out how it's done and I'm still not sure I get it right. I also know that I couldn't even start until I attended a workshop about ten years ago where I was exposed to the method for the first time.
At the center of my inquiry is the faculty member. Following the definition used by the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (www.podnetwork.org), I use "faculty development" to indicate programs that emphasize the individual faculty member as teacher (e.g., his or her skill in the classroom), scholar/professional (publishing, college/university service), and person (time constraints, self-confidence). Of course, faculty members work within particular departments and institutions, and these environments are clearly critical as well (Stark et al., 2002). Consequently, in addition to focusing on the individual, faculty-development programs may also consider organizational structure (such as administrators and criteria for reappointment and tenure) and instructional development (the overall curriculum, who teaches particular courses). In fact, Diamond (2002) emphasizes that the three areas of effort (individual, organizational, instructional) should complement one another in faculty-development programs. The scope of the numerous factors impacting higher education biology instruction is a realistic reminder about the complexity and challenge of the second half of the Vision and Change endeavor.
But there's more to the problem than just lack of leadership and lack of training. There's also the problem that researchers want to be known as researchers and not as teachers. In other words, their professional identify might be at stake if they spend too much time on teaching. (This is a good reason for hiring teaching stream faculty.) Here's an extended quotation from Brownell and Tanner (2012) (my emphasis).
Recent calls for reform, such as Vision and Change: A Call to Action, have described a vision to transform undergraduate biology education and have noted the need for faculty to promote this change toward a more iterative and evidence-based approach to teaching (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 2011). A key challenge is convincing many faculty—not just a handful of faculty scattered across the country but the majority of life sciences faculty in every institution—to change the way they teach.
Few would disagree that this is an ambitious goal. Change is difficult in any setting, but changing academic teaching appears to be especially tricky. Calls for change imply that the pedagogical approaches our own professors and mentors modeled and taught us might not be the best way to engage large numbers of diverse populations of undergraduates in our discipline. This effort potentially also involves telling faculty that what they have been doing for the past 5, 10, or even 30 yr may not the most effective approach, especially for today's students. Widespread change in undergraduate biology teaching—or in any of the sciences for that matter—has been documented to be difficult (Henderson et al., 2011). The general perception is that while there are pockets of change driven by individual faculty, there is little evidence that the majority of our faculty members are reconsidering their approach to teaching, despite dozens of formal policy documents calling for reform, hundreds of biology education research publications on the subject, and the availability and award of substantial amounts of external grant funding to stimulate change toward evidence-based teaching (Tagg, 2012).
In fact, it is somewhat perplexing that we as scientists are resistant to such change. We are well trained in how to approach problems analytically, collect data, make interpretations, form conclusions, and then revise our experimental hypotheses and protocols accordingly. If we are experts at making evidence-based decisions in our experimental laboratories, then what forces are at play that impede us from adopting equally iterative and evidence-based approaches to teaching in our classrooms? What can we—as members of a community of biologists dedicated to promoting scholarly biology teaching—do to identify and remove barriers that may be impeding widespread change in faculty approaches to teaching?
A substantial body of literature has highlighted many factors that impede faculty change, the most common of which are a lack of training, time, and incentives. However, there may be other barriers—unacknowledged and unexamined barriers—that might prove to be equally important. In particular, the tensions between a scientist's professional identity and the call for faculty pedagogical change are rarely, if ever, raised as a key impediment to widespread biology education reform. In this article, we propose that scientists’ professional identities—how they view themselves and their work in the context of their discipline and how they define their professional status—may be an invisible and underappreciated barrier to undergraduate science teaching reform, one that is not often discussed, because very few of us reflect upon our professional identity and the factors that influence it. Our primary goal in this article is to raise the following question: Will addressing training, time, and incentives be sufficient to achieve widespread pedagogical change in undergraduate biology education, or will modifying our professional identity also be necessary?
Brownwell, S.E. and Tanner, K.D. (2012) Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity? CBE Life Sci Educ 11:339-346. [doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-09-0163]
D'Avanzo, C. (2013) Post-Vision and Change: Do We Know How to Change? CBE Life Sci Educ 112:373-382. [doi: 10.1187/cbe.13-01-0010]