Liberal arts faculty need to get more involved in teacher education (essay)

How might we prepare better schoolteachers?

For over a century, colleges and universities have asked this question with varying levels of interest and commitment. Some have also asked questions more foundational.

Can teaching be taught? Or are some teachers just born with “the gift” -- an inherent ability to connect with young people and inspire learning? Should we devote resources to training teachers? Or should we simply encourage public policies that identify undergraduates who already posses the knack for teaching?

President Obama has ordered his administration to take up similar questions. Recognizing that “recruiting, preparing, developing and supporting great teachers has a direct impact on the learning and success of America’s students,” the Department of Education will issue new rules this summer for programs that train teachers.

Unlike the emerging debate over the Common Core, however, this pivotal moment to shape what gets valued in classroom instruction will draw limited attention. A relatively small subset of policy makers, K-12 interest groups, and schools of education will wrangle over the new guidelines.  

And a stakeholder once central to these discussions, faculty members in colleges of liberal arts and sciences, will again be missing from an important democratic conversation.

This renewed attention to teacher preparation is, nonetheless, significant. As the White House explained, “There is no more important factor in successful schools than having a great teacher in every classroom.”

Until now, the President and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have pursued this goal indirectly as part of a multi-faceted, bi-partisan education reform agenda that garners support from key business interests. Obama administration policies have encouraged competition, promoted merit pay, challenged tenure practices, demanded tougher performance measures, and required teachers to prove their instruction is tied to “college and career readiness” goals.

After years of qualified support, some schools of education and teacher unions are pushing back against this accountability agenda. Many will likely object to any proposed guidelines that retroactively connect student test scores to the preparation their teachers received years earlier. But these stakeholders will offer few significant alternatives to address the enduring criticism that the teaching profession draws from lower performing college graduates and benefits little from a surfeit of undemanding credentialing programs.  

By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal.

Rather than standing on the sidelines as these debates are resurrected this summer, faculty members in the arts, sciences and humanities should offer expert testimony. Federal policy on teacher quality directly impacts the quality of students enrolling in our institutions of higher education and ultimately shapes whether the best college graduates consider teaching as a viable and meaningful career. 

We can draw some lessons from the past.

When number-crunching industrialists tried to impose new purposes and teaching practices on the late 19th-century high school, the most vocal opposition came from professors of literature, history, mathematics, philosophy, physics, biology, and art. This liberal arts defense of teaching was loudest in the Midwest.

As early as 1879, University of Michigan President James B. Angell reminded institutions of higher education of their crucial role “apprising the public that teaching is itself an art.”  Michigan faculty, with appointments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, spent the remainder of the century visiting schools, experimenting with new courses, and identifying a modest place for “pedagogics” in the curriculum.  

More significantly, these scholars joined peers at Northwestern, Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, and elsewhere to actively champion state credentialing policies that elevated the importance of preparing teachers with subject-matter expertise. On campus, this broad-based faculty effort led to conferences on teaching, new faculty-alumni networks, and the formation of clubs that openly discussed how this subject matter might best be taught.  

But over time this tight connection between the liberal arts and teacher preparation practices fractured.  As historians ranging from Frederick Rudolph to Larry Cuban have shown, the 20th-century university became distracted by new purposes and research imperatives. The emergent field of “Teacher Education” soon separated itself from the liberal arts by promoting an increasingly technical conception of teaching. New credentialing expectations were established, not through campuswide collaboration, but by specialists who believed educational science could isolate and measure the constituent parts of good teaching. By World War I, semi-autonomous departments of education had effectively replaced the chairs of pedagogy that were once positioned firmly within the arts and sciences.

This history is relevant today and helps explain a century-long cycle of diminished instruction in American education. Without a professional core of teachers who are versed in the humanities and steeped in the great questions of science, schools are especially vulnerable to forces that reduce teaching to a series of discrete measurable acts. Yet the more teaching is dissected, the less attractive the profession becomes for graduates who might otherwise consider it a viable and meaningful career option. 

More directly, these reductionist policy trends obscure something that humanists care deeply about -- the enduring beauty of teaching and learning. As one outgoing pedagogy chair lamented in 1900, “the attempt to mechanize instruction is part of the monstrous error that free minds can be coerced; it has really the same root as religious persecution.”

By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal. 

This silence has had a disproportionately negative impact in poorer urban communities. The type of liberally educated teacher who once commonly taught in economically diverse public schools now migrates toward private institutions or to affluent suburbs. Meanwhile, policies that emphasize vocational “readiness” — at the expense of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking — communicate a dispiriting message of doubt to disadvantaged students who might benefit most from these educational virtues.

This same policy landscape discourages bright, service-minded college graduates from considering teaching as a meaningful lifelong pursuit. Even Teach for America, which has notably placed thousands of teachers in urban classrooms, is increasingly viewed as a steppingstone or worse. Many of its more insightful and talented recruits quickly leave teaching for careers that more readily reward their capacity for independent thought and imagination.

This vocational pattern has drawn far too little attention. And, not coincidentally, a profession that once mitigated inequality now increasingly reflects it.

What can we do to push back against these trends? 

First and foremost, professors in the liberal arts need to get back into public school classrooms. Visiting schools and even observing our own former students teaching is not difficult to arrange. Even these modest experiences could profoundly alter our understanding of how much choice, accountability, and testing have shifted the instructional landscape since our own high school days. 

Secondly, colleges of the liberal arts need to do more in staking a claim to teacher education and, like our 19th-century predecessors, invite teachers, principals, and superintendents to campus for open conversations about what we all value when hiring teachers.

Third, we can accept that these bridge-building activities can produce expertise and authority. With this new legitimacy -- armed with insight on the ways professional expectations can dehumanize teaching -- we can demand a seat at the table the next time local, state, or federal policy makers meet to make consequential decisions.

Our current ignorance of classroom practice leaves us vulnerable to a powerful media message that repeatedly demeans teachers. Time spent in schools disrupts this narrative and could remind us what masterful teachers continue to do.

They teach for understanding. They encourage and support students with the knowledge that learning can be uneven, contradictory, and even frustrating. They demand deeper thinking, applaud passion, reward accuracy, tap curiosity, and otherwise help students discover the inherent human need to solve problems and experience beauty.

Such noble learning pursuits have long been the domain of the liberal arts and humanities. These fields best reward our creativity, connect us to others, and offer standards for excellence. And they also show us how to handle ambiguity, face disappointment, and recover from failure.  

As such, there is a growing understanding that the arts and humanities may offer teachers the most important instruction our children need to address a future only they can imagine.

In this light, we need not agree on whether good teachers are born or made.  But if we want committed teachers who ask big questions, model open inquiry, and honor a young person’s mind, college faculty in the liberal arts will need to speak up and properly accept their historical role as teacher educators.

A generation of college students is ready think more holistically about preparatory programs that, like teaching, can be interesting, dynamic, demanding, and meaningful. And they will need a big campus to discover why teaching is, by any good measure, a career worthy of their thinking.

Stephen Mucher teaches history at Bard College and directs the Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program in Los Angeles.

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Pulse podcast discusses what's ahead for eLearning technology

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This month's edition of The Pulse podcast looks at what's on the horizon in digital learning instruction.

In it, Rodney B. Murray, the host of The Pulse, discusses some of the trends in eLearning teaching and technology. He explores the 2014 Horizon Report and trends in pedagogy, among other things.

Faculty use Internet-based technologies to create global learning opportunities

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As colleges look for low-cost ways to globalize the on-campus learning experience, there's increasing interest in using the Internet to connect with international classrooms. 

Extra Credit for Defying Gender Norms on Body Hair

Breanne Fahs, associate professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, has an unusual way to teaching students about defying gender-specific norms. She offers extra credit to all female students who opt not to shave any body hair below the neck, and to male students who shave all of their body hair below the neck. Students must shave (or not shave) throughout a 10-week period and keep a journal related to their experiences. “There’s no better way to learn about societal norms than to violate them and see how people react,” said Fahs in an Arizona State article about her teaching technique. “There’s really no reason why the choice to shave, or not, should be a big deal. But it is, as the students tend to find out quickly.” Some of the Arizona State students may be seen in the photograph below.

four students posing on campus



Academic Minute: Computers That Teach

In today’s Academic Minute, Matt Taylor, assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University, explains how he is teaching computers how to teach. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


Nearly 70 Colleges Team Up to Assess Student Learning

Nearly 70 institutions are collaborating to better assess learning outcomes as part of a new initiative called the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment. The colleges and universities are a mix of two- and four-year institutions.

The initiative, funded in its initial planning year by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was announced Monday by the Association of Colleges and Universities and the State Higher Education Executive Officers association.

”The calls are mounting daily for higher education to be able to show what students can successfully do with their learning,” said Carol Geary Schneider, AAC&U president, in an announcement. “The Multi-State Collaborative is a very important step toward focusing assessment on the best evidence of all: the work students produce in the course of their college studies."

The 68 colleges and universities participating in the collaborative are from Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah. Faculty at those institutions will sample and assess student work as part of a cross-state effort to document how students are achieving learning outcomes such as quantitative reasoning, written communication, and critical thinking.

All of the assessments will be based on a set of common rubrics. The project will also develop an online data platform for uploading student work samples and assessment data.

Fewer top Australian students choosing to train as teachers

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Teacher training programs in Australia are attracting fewer and fewer of the brightest students entering the country's universities.

Colleges should focus less on student failure and more on success (essay)

In their effort to improve outcomes, colleges and universities are becoming more sophisticated in how they analyze student data – a promising development. But too often they focus their analytics muscle on predicting which students will fail, and then allocate all of their support resources to those students.

That’s a mistake. Colleges should instead broaden their approach to determine which support services will work best with particular groups of students. In other words, they should go beyond predicting failure to predicting which actions are most likely to lead to success. 

Higher education institutions are awash in the resources needed for sophisticated analysis of student success issues. They have talented research professionals, mountains of data and robust methodologies and tools. Unfortunately, most resourced-constrained institutional research (IR) departments are focused on supporting accreditation and external reporting requirements. 

Some institutions have started turning their analytics resources inward to address operational and student performance issues, but the question remains: Are they asking the right questions?

Colleges spend hundreds of millions of dollars on services designed to enhance student success. When making allocation decisions, the typical approach is to identify the 20 to 30 percent of students who are most “at risk” of dropping out and throw as many support resources at them as possible. This approach involves a number of troubling assumptions:

  1. The most “at risk” students are the most likely to be affected by a particular form of support.
  2. Every form of support has a positive impact on every “at risk” student.
  3. Students outside this group do not require or deserve support.

What we have found over 14 years working with students and institutions across the country is that:

  1. There are students whose success you can positively affect at every point along the risk distribution.
  2. Different forms of support impact different students in different ways.
  3. The ideal allocation of support resources varies by institution (or more to the point, by the students and situations within the institution).

Another problem with a risk-focused approach is that when students are labeled “at risk” and support resources directed to them on that basis, asking for or accepting help becomes seen as a sign of weakness. When tailored support is provided to all students, even the most disadvantaged are better-off. The difference is a mindset of “success creation” versus “failure prevention.” Colleges must provide support without stigma.

To better understand impact analysis, consider Eric Siegel’s book Predictive Analytics. In it, he talks about the Obama 2012 campaign’s use of microtargeting to cost-effectively identify groups of swing voters who could be moved to vote for Obama by a specific outreach technique (or intervention), such as piece of direct mail or a knock on their door -- the “persuadable” voters. The approach involved assessing what proportion of people in a particular group (e.g., high-income suburban moms with certain behavioral characteristics) was most likely to:

  • vote for Obama if they received the intervention (positive impact subgroup)
  • vote for Obama or Romney irrespective of the intervention (no impact subgroup)
  • vote for Romney if they received the intervention (negative impact subgroup)

The campaign then leveraged this analysis to focus that particular intervention on the first subgroup.

This same technique can be applied in higher education by identifying which students are most likely to respond favorably to a particular form of support, which will be unmoved by it and which will be negatively impacted and dropout. 

Of course, impact modeling is much more difficult than risk modeling. Nonetheless, if our goal is to get more students to graduate, it’s where we need to focus analytics efforts.

The biggest challenge with this analysis is that it requires large, controlled studies involving multiple forms of intervention. The need for large controlled studies is one of the key reasons why institutional researchers focus on risk modeling. It is easy to track which students completed their programs and which did not. So, as long as the characteristics of incoming students aren’t changing much, risk modeling is rather simple. 

However, once you’ve assessed a student’s risk, you’re still left trying to answer the question, “Now what do I do about it?” This is why impact modeling is so essential. It gives researchers and institutions guidance on allocating the resources that are appropriate for each student.

There is tremendous analytical capacity in higher education, but we are currently directing it toward the wrong goal. While it’s wonderful to know which students are most likely to struggle in college, it is more important to know what we can do to help more students succeed.

Dave Jarrat is a member of the leadership team at InsideTrack, where he directs marketing, research and industry relations activities.

Study: Web Surfing in Class Hurts Top Students Too

Conventional wisdom holds that marginal students may pay more of a price for web surfing during class than top students, who are presumed to be better multitaskers. But a study at Michigan State University challenges that belief. The study tracked 500 students in an introductory psychology course, using ACT scores to measure intellectual ability. And top students as well as others saw their performance lag if they were heavy internet users in class (for non-class reasons).


Essay questions use of term 'pedagogy' to describe ideas with regard to college teaching

Some will immediately say this is nothing more than a semantics debate. No different than if we were discussing the contrasting meanings of, say, “soda” and “pop.”

When we use the word “pedagogy” as a catchall for all teaching methods, of course, no one is talking about little children, but we rarely stop and specifically consider what this word means and its relationship with other words. 

Pedagogy: the methods and practice of teaching children.

Andragogy: the methods and practice of teaching adults.

So the question becomes: at what point is a student no longer a child, but an adult? There is no hard-and-fast rule, but for our purposes here, any college student is an adult.

Andragogy, a concept dating to the 1960s and Malcolm Knowles, is important because it recognizes that adult learners are different and that these differences are extremely important. And its importance, as a body of knowledge and approach in and of itself, is profound and vastly under-recognized.

Andragogy -- adult learning theory -- stresses that adults:

  • Are more independent than children when it comes to learning.
  • Are capable of critical thinking (unlike some children) but are still interested in the “correct answer."
  • Learn more slowly but just as effectively because they have more life experience and deeply ingrained stereotypes and ideas.
  • Must be given respect as adults and for their life experience or lack of experience.
  • Need classrooms that embrace active learning, including hands-on activities.
  • Learn material that is relevant for their needs.
  • Are driven less by grades (performance goal orientation) and more by understanding (mastery goal orientation).

Going back to the question of when students become adults, in some ways it does not matter per se. All learners learn best when many of the core elements of andragogy are followed. All students — whether 5, 15 or 55 — deserve respect, need room for their prior experiences, and need lessons to be relevant. That said, the idea of andragogy exists on a sliding spectrum of sorts. Whether a student is 18 or 85, he/she will enter the classroom with experience, for example, but this experience will vary based on age, interests, background, etc.

This is also where some understanding of basic human growth and development theories (e.g., Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, Piaget’s stages of cognitive development) can help professors build classrooms that are comfortable across the board. Students in their 30s will tend to have very different biologically driven needs, hopes, and fears than students in their 60s.

When students are not allowed opportunities for their feelings, especially about particularly sensitive topics or topics to which they have been vastly miseducated or undereducated, learning stops. (Please see my comments about the trigger warning or objectionable material warning and student feelings here.) Additionally, we know that for learners of any age it is very hard, even physiologically impossible without extreme dedication, to “unlearn” what have been “core truths,” whether the topic is basic physics or the causes of the Civil War.

This said, pedagogy is still important because children do learn differently and have different needs. Most notably, children need some more guidance. Likewise, children — depending on their age and experience (back to the sliding spectrum) — are physiologically not always capable of performing advanced math or demonstrating critical thinking. This is not at all to sanction the “banking method” — where teachers only lecture, metaphorically dumping information into students’ brains and then students regurgitate that information verbatim on assessments — of education that has sometimes been all too common: Active learning and student-centered learning is always best.

One note on learning styles, too: adults do tend to think they have a learning style — visual, kinesthetic, auditory — that enables them to learn more effectively. While I have read much more about andragogy than learning styles, there is some research that suggests learning styles are actually a myth. They have relevance because we give them relevance, but actually it is roughly equally possible for learning to happen visually or kinesthetically, for example, and furthermore, that ALL learners learn best when all learning styles are used. Going back to Bloom’s Taxonomy: learning that involves interactive thinking, hearing, reading, writing, touching, and creating results in the most effective learning, and naturally, much of this will requires independent learning and initiative by an adult student.

Even if we recognize that adults learn differently from children, by using the umbrella term “pedagogy” for both, we unconsciously tend to view adult learners as “children” who need to be taught by the “expert,” and we miss an entire body of knowledge and research about effectively teaching. I know some professors do not like the idea of being taught how to teach — they say it sounds too much like the training required to teach K-12. I too was somewhat like this when I first started teaching college in 2007.

But, as professors in the classroom, our ultimate goal should be for our adult students to learn, and for learning to occur, we should always be aware of how to teach effectively and stay reasonably up-to-date on findings as they develop.

For further information on andragogy check out this website; Malcolm S. Knowles’s The Adult Learner (now in its seventh edition); and Sharan B. Merriam, et al.’s, Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda is completing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston, where he also teaches. He studies race, culture, human rights, and education. He regularly blogs here.


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