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Higher education is unique among the learned professions in that it requires no professional development training. Acquiring a certain number of CEUs – continuing education units – is expected among most professionals, including lawyers, physicians, social workers, and K-12 teachers.

Yet college faculty have escaped such requirements. In the absence of ongoing professional development training, efforts at improvement and innovation remain voluntary.

Nor is teaching by tenured faculty regularly observed. Unlike scholarship, teaching receives no peer review, at least after tenure.

As a result, the college classroom remains an isolated and impenetrable black box, to borrow Larry Cuban’s evocative phrase. What goes on in the classroom stays there.

Cuban’s historical research does suggest a possible way out of the black box dilemma. In K-12 schools, he observes, “No instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended by designers.” But he cites many examples of successful (if often short-lived) innovations in which teachers took part in the planning and implementation of reform.

Cuban’s guiding principle is that if engaged teachers are given the opportunity to experiment and the help to do so, they are likely to generate something exciting.

One way forward: Team-based communities of teaching and curricular innovation. These shouldn’t be conversation groups. There should be tangible, timely outcomes. The community’s charge must be to produce changes that are practical, measurable, and time-delimited.

Therefore, it is important that these communities should not consist of faculty alone. They need to include collaborators and implementers: A cross-functional team of instructional designers, technologists, assessment specialists, student service and affairs specialists, and students too who not only provide input but are responsible for ensuring that the ideas the communities generate are executed.

Support is a key to success. Faculty can come up with ideas, recommendations, and reports, but if innovations are to come to fruition, staff and student enablers are crucial. After all, faculty will return to their day jobs. 

Leadership buy-in is also key. When push comes to shove, the ability to say that a project has provost or dean-level priority can make all the difference.

It might be best if these teams are not confined to a single discipline, but build connections across departmental lines, since one key outcome might be the creation of interdisciplinary clusters of connected courses.

It is important to consider at the very outset the initiative’s goal. Is it instructional reform? Curricular innovation? Or solving a problem – whether this is a high failure rate in a particular course or track, student disengagement, falling enrollments, or an inability to adequately prepare students for advanced courses? These teams will work best if they consider themselves be solver communities.

But perhaps the most important goals of these team-based communities of practice is to break down silos, build connections, and stimulate dialogue. One of the goals is to help faculty and staff share experiences, describe challenges, and develop a more holistic understanding of how diverse units might better work together to support student success.

Just maybe, a heightened sense of teamwork might also help build morale, increase job satisfaction, and contribute to the growth of a culture of continuous improvement in teaching and learning.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin.

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