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Noble prizewinner and Stanford physicist Carl Wieman has taken the next step on his mission to transform undergraduate teaching with the publication of Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative, which lays out the results of Wieman’s multi-year effort to move undergraduate science instruction beyond the “big lecture.” 

Wieman covers his work in fostering “active learning” with its focus on projects and problems, and orients his philosophy around helping students learn how to “think” inside a particular scientific discipline.

I don’t teach science, but it’s a philosophy I can get behind, since I try to achieve something similar in writing instruction by orienting our work around “writing-related” problems that require students to think and act as writers do. Rather than providing students with templates and rules in the name of pushing them towards easily assessed writing products, I want them struggling with the full range of challenges writers face when their writing matters.

Wieman is frustrated that schools don’t systematically study teaching methods, and believes that systemization could uncover the best methods for teaching science.  I am more cautious on this front because I think teaching and learning are complicated human processes that resist this sort of reduction. We can uncover many different approaches and principles that seem to work well, but I am dubious of discovering one curriculum to rule them all. 

It’s not as though Wieman is breaking particularly new ground when it comes to understanding how and why we learn. A resurrected Maria Montessori would easily recognize the underlying philosophy of Wieman’s approach. One of the pressing questions Wieman’s book raises (and one I think about often) is why, as students advance, we make school less and less geared to the ways we are naturally wired to learn.

The book is a useful read for anyone who is interested in considering some of the challenges of teaching undergraduates, though it’s only directly applicable to science instructors, and really is most oriented towards advancing the conversation about how teaching and learning are considered at the administrative level.

To that end, it’s a little frustrating because as Wieman acknowledges in an interview with NPR, there’s little to no evidence that most upper level administrators are particularly interested in “transforming” learning. Perhaps Wieman’s systemization will make it more attractive as learning will become something that can be measured and used as an instrument of institutional prestige. 

A marketable metric stands a better chance of getting administrative traction.

As someone concerned with the quality of writing instruction, my frustrations are a little different. To improve quality of writing instruction we don’t need a revolution in teaching methods – that revolution has already been happening – but a revolution in how writing instruction is resourced.

We know a lot about the conditions under which writing is best taught and learned. These conditions were first enshrined by the Conference on College Composition & Communication in 1989 and later updated in 2013 and 2015. 

Point 11 is titled: “Sound writing instruction is provided by instructors with reasonable and equitable working conditions.”

Those conditions include, but are not limited to:

  • Class sizes of no more than 20 students with an ideal size of 15.
  • Maximum load of 60 students per faculty member per term.
  • Receipt of a reasonable wage, including health benefits.
  • Access to all resources of the department, including continuing education and shared government, regardless of rank or status.

How many institutions, particularly the public research institutions that Wieman is primarily concerned with, can say they meet these criteria?

I don’t have an answer, other than to say they haven’t been met by any of the places I’ve worked over the last seventeen years.

If teaching quality matters, in the humanities, particularly English, we have a much shorter route to improvement than seeking to revolutionize instruction and disseminate those discoveries.

The conditions under which we labor are the single most important factor to the quality of our work. Writing instructors routine carry student loads double the “maximum” recommended.

Will this cost money? Of course. But if institutions want to claim that they care about the quality of instruction, it would be money well spent. This could be marketed as well.

Come to … where our instructional faculty isn’t tragically overworked and can pay attention to their students.

We can’t pretend that we don’t know how to improve teaching and learning.

It’s a problem of will and politics and policy. I don’t expect much to change, but at the least, we could stop acting like we don’t know what should be done.

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