Centers for Teaching & Learning As University Red Teams

Playing Devil’s Advocate to the existing instructional practices.

February 28, 2016

Is the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) the new university red team? This is the question that I’m pondering as I read Micah Zenko’s new book Red Team: How to Succeed By Thinking Like the Enemy.

A red team is the modern incarnation of the 11th century Vatican' Devil’s Advocate - the official charged with arguing against  a candidate for sainthood.

The work of modern red teams are as varied as the organizations that they serve.  A red team for the TSA will probe for weaknesses in airport screening procedures. The Secret Service runs red team drills where they seek to penetrate secure locations (such as Camp David) in order to expose and correct weaknesses. And a company or university technology red team will seek to hack into their own computer networks to uncover and patch vulnerabilities.

Why might our Teaching and Learning Centers be candidates for playing the role of university red teams?

The answer to this question depends on the extent that you believe that teaching and learning is fundamental to the organization. If learning is the new postsecondary differentiator, than any efforts to evolve and improve learning outside of traditional methods and practices will be valuable.

When it comes to teaching and learning, a red team might ask:

“What existing or new competitors might in the future offer a superior learning experience than we can provide with our current teaching methods?"

“If a competing institution wanted to displace us as a leading institution for learning, what would they do to redesign their teaching methods?"

“Will the education providers of the future be the same as those of today, and how may these new providers do a superior job in creating both new teaching and credentialing methods?"

“What are the types of students that our current teaching methodologies fail to serve well, and what new methods may be the most helpful for improving learning outcomes for these students?"

“What might an educator accomplish if given a robust set of resources, autonomy and support to reach their teaching goals - and how could the adoption of these methods at competing institutions."

Teaching and Learning Centers might be well positioned to tackle questions such as these. These organizations match many of the criteria that Zenko talks about as essential for a red team to succeed. These attributes include:

  • A strong appreciation and a deep knowledge of the teaching and learning culture at their schools.
  • Durable bonds and a shared history with faculty and staff engaged in teaching throughout the institution.
  • Familiarity and connections with the day-to-day operations (teaching) that occurs on campus (as many Teaching and Learning Center people also teach).
  • Networks and connections with colleagues in CTLs at other institutions, and deep engagement within a community of practice.
  • Immersion in the theoretical frameworks and applied practices within the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL).

Teaching and Learning Centers should be able to critically examine the educational status quo within the institutions that they serve. CTLs are often involved in experiments and pilot projects that may offer alternative methods to standard pedagogical practices. Faculty engaged in innovative teaching practices can be supported and highlighted by the convening and outreach operations of the university CTL.

The main prerequisite for CTLs playing a red team role is leadership buy-in and support. The role of the CTL in identifying risks around current teaching and learning practices must be made clear.

Presidents, provosts, and deans should be seeking independent information about how the institution should change their teaching practices.  Institutions should be open and confident in assessing risks.  Practices, methods, and structures that are not optimally organized to improve student learning should be openly discussed and proactively addressed.

Center for Teaching and Learning already play many roles on our campuses. They provide resources, support, and community for faculty and future faculty. They run initiatives and programs designed to support the goals of faculty. They offer a convening spot for campus educators and outside experts. CTLs create and run programming, workshops, and training opportunities for faculty and other campus educators. And they work to highlight the innovations and initiatives of faculty and non-faculty educators as they work to improve the art and science of teaching.

Could red teaming be added to the menu of CTL work?

If the CTL is not playing the role of Devil’s Advocate for existing campus practices in teaching and learning, who else is stepping into this function?

Rather than hiring expensive outside consultants to identify risks and suggest solutions around teaching and learning, wouldn’t campus leaders be better off utilizing the talents embedded in their existing Centers for Teaching and Learning?



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