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Professors Can Learn From Teachers

By Walt Gardner — January 02, 2015 1 min read
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From time to time, an article appears that contains news so obvious that I wonder why it was published. I have reference now to a story that questions the effectiveness of the lecture method in colleges and universities, and implies that instruction in K-12 is better (“Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science,” The New York Times, Dec. 27, 2014).

An instructor in an introductory chemistry course at the University of California at Davis has broken with the strict lecture method by designing lessons requiring her students to make frequent active responses. As all teachers in K-12 know, this is indispensable for learning. Yet in the academy it is considered groundbreaking. Although the impetus for the change was the high failure rate in science, I maintain that reducing lecturing to a minimum would enhance learning in other subjects as well.

For too long, knowledge of subject matter has trumped pedagogy. As a result, professors who were experts in their field, as evidenced by their publications, grants and awards, were assumed to be quite capable of teaching. It was an erroneous conclusion to draw. I had more than my share of famous professors who had no business being in the classroom because they knew absolutely nothing about how students learned. To them, telling is teaching. Yet they remain in their tenured positions, often with a six-to-nine-hour workweek in the classroom today as compared with nine or more hours a week in the classroom in 1989 (“Colleges Need a Business Productivity Audit,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29, 2014).

I’m not saying that all professors fall into this category. But if colleges and universities are serious about improving the graduation rate, they need to give far greater weight to teaching in awarding tenure. As things stand, high-school teachers are blamed for not preparing students for college-level work. Maybe one of the reasons is that students are accustomed to instruction that requires them to frequently make active responses. It’s here that most teachers can run rings around most professors.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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