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To the editor:

I think we need to start a new adage: never take teaching advice from an administrator. Whatever expertise they had in teaching has been buried under their administrative goals, and whatever humility they had as faculty about the limitations of their own understanding has disappeared now that they’ve been chosen to lead and therefore must know more than all those of us who haven’t been. Dean Darroch provides an object lesson in this in her piece on student engagement.

Darroch assumed her current position as dean in March 2020, which means she’s been in administration since the beginning of the pandemic, not in the classroom. So it’s not surprising that she doesn’t see COVID to blame for the engagement issues we’re seeing — she doesn’t understand that this isn’t some slow generational shift or the tired “digital native” trope, but rather a dramatic change from fall 2019 to fall 2021. (And it’s utter coincidence that in the intervening period we had the unprecedented social experiment of forcing everyone into online learning, or masked and distance learning, for an extended period…)

Darroch is an expert in something, but it’s not pedagogy or the cognitive science of learning, as she makes clear when she buys into the thoroughly discredited idea of learning styles. So why are we paying attention to her thoughts on teaching? (Well, in part because IHE puts bios at the ends of articles…)

And she pushes farther than people normally do in pandering to students, going so far as to say that faculty should “Provide clear expectations as to the outcomes you expect of students but let students identify the tasks they believe are required of them to achieve those outcomes.”

This is sheer nonsense. The entire reason we employ faculty is so that they can guide students through the tasks that are required to gain knowledge and skills, because students — and I cannot stress this strongly enough — do not have the expertise to figure this out on their own. If I gave Darroch one of my student learning outcomes (say, “demonstrate understanding of angular momentum in quantum systems”) and asked her what activities would lead to that, I suspect she wouldn’t know where to start. Well, neither do my students (nor did I, as a student). I’m not paid to generate learning outcomes; I’m paid to structure and guide an entire experience that will lead to students satisfying them.

But still Darroch argues that we should “Empower students to create a learner-led, self-organized, independent learning environment.” In a very limited way this can be useful. For example, in my field of physics, there’s been a movement towards inquiry-based labs where students play a role in designing their own experiments. However, this nonetheless requires a lot of structure and guidance from the faculty member, because otherwise the students will just be lost, confused, and frustrated. No student is going to independently discover, over the course of one year, what it took the most brilliant minds in history four centuries to work out. Labs that lean too much toward structure are still somewhat effective, but labs that lean too far towards independence are a disaster.

And guess what? While inquiry-based labs have been demonstrated to be far more effective in teaching students expert attitudes towards experiment in science, students don’t believe they’re learning as much in them. Because students are not great at assessing what activities are most effective for their learning. (Witness the modern student who believes they learn very well from watching videos, regardless of clear demonstrations that they don’t.)

Darroch relies heavily on Peter Drucker, who apparently worked in the 1950s on the topic of knowledge workers. It feels relevant that the science of teaching and learning has advanced by leaps and bounds in the many decades since then, and also that students are not being employed for their knowledge and skills. Rather, they’re employing us, the faculty, to teach them knowledge and skills.

--David Syphers

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