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Why Professors Doubt Education Research

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 7, 2018

Lauren Herckis, a Carnegie Mellon anthropologist

Lauren Herckis, an anthropologist at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied the culture of ancient Mayan cities, is turning her focus closer to home these days—exploring why professors try new teaching approaches, or decide not to.

She found many professors are reluctant to move away from the way they’ve traditionally taught, even when presented with evidence new approaches might work better. But that isn’t because the professors don’t care about teaching. In some cases the issue involves broader philosophical differences among faculty members over what it means to teach.

“I found that every single professor who I spoke to really valued teaching,” she said. “To all of them, teaching was central to their avocation—and their identity.”

EdSurge sat down with Herckis to talk about her research and what it might mean for others leading teaching-innovation projects on campuses. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

You've discovered an interesting paradox: Professors at research universities like yours of course value the scientific method and doing rigorous research—and yet these same professors, it seems like, often say they're skeptical of rigorous research about teaching. What do you think is going on there?

Herckis: I think that folks who value rigorous scientific research at the university level have often been steeped within a specific disciplinary context and many of them are quick to avow their expertise or lack thereof. In other arenas that aren't their specialty, they tend to try not to step on other people's toes. When it comes to teaching, it is a practice that many of them have cultivated over years of experience that is separate from their research or their identity as a researcher

So they don't feel as comfortable even reading the research about it?

Oh, many do. There are many professors I've spoken to who are fascinated by research on learning science, educational technology, approaching to teaching of learning. Many who are deeply steeped in it. But there are many who are not. I think it really depends on the faculty.

There's a distinction between researchers in learning science and educational technology, and folks who are researchers in, say, physics, or biology, or engineering, who are also teachers. They teach at the university level, and they may or may not be about research teaching.

You found that professors really care about their teaching, and yet they are skeptical of education research. It sounds like a lot of people ended up teaching the way that they had been taught, or the way that they felt good as a student in classes they had had.

That's right. People sometimes ignore the research precisely because they care about teaching. Different faculty arrive at the point where they're teaching college students from wildly different experiences of their own. Some have wanted since they were small children to be professors at a university, and some fell into it later in a career.

For faculty who think that research is a good way to learn how to teach, they will devour the literature on learning sciences. They'll reach out to experts across a number of disciplines and within their own discipline to try and learn what the best way to teach is

For faculty who believe that teaching is an art, that it is just something that you develop with experience and time, that you can't learn from a book, you need to learn by doing more or learn from your students, no amount of exposure to learning science research is going to disrupt their sense that this is something they learn by doing, or that they need to follow their gut on.

Can you just a minute to talk about what your method was at exploring this topic? Like how you set up your work here?

For the most part, we used an ethnographic approach. That meant sitting in on lots of meetings and lots of phone calls, having conversations with lots of people. I followed four specific projects over the course of a year, and each of these projects was an effort to either develop or to improve, or to scale the use of some kinds of educational technology.

I'm curious, because you note in your study that higher education is at a big moment of change, and that new ways of teaching better fit the needs of today’s workplace. How optimistic are you—based on the attitudes you saw among professors—that widespread change is possible?

There are different strategies that are appropriate for different institutions. One thing that I encountered that I think is very important and very compelling is that different professors have different ideas about what it means to teach well. The review and promotion process is characterized by some metrics that are supposed to evaluate teaching effectiveness or teaching excellence, but those also vary from one unit to another. The institution may say in its mission statement, or in other kind of high level visioning, that good teaching is valued, but what that means, operationally speaking [often] means different things to different people within the same institution.

Your ability to shoot for the same target, to try and reach the same goal, is impeded. The kinds of transformation, or the kinds of barriers that we could anticipate in those different contexts, are going to depend on what you mean when you say you're going to do some excellent teaching.

Probably everyone has an idea of what makes a good teacher.

Yeah. We found that there are faculty who think that the goal, their job as an instructor, is really to build a relationship with the student in which they recognize expertise in their disciplines and are afforded the space to do their own exploration—so that [the students] themselves can do the hard work of learning.

There are other faculty who are very focused on, "Well, in order to learn this content well, you need this piece first. And then, you can't learn this other concept until you've really mastered this first concept. And once you've mastered those concepts, then there are these kinds of exercises that can help you learn. And so my job as a faculty member is to put the right pieces of content, or the right challenges, in front of students in the right order." Which is, the heavy lifting is the professor's burden in that model.

Then there are faculty who firmly believe that no one learns without struggling with their own lack of mastery before reaching a point where they can achieve things. Those faculty really, strongly believe that the most important part of the teaching practice is to demonstrate to students that they don't know the answer, and then help them find a way to learn how or to understand.

These different ways of approaching teaching really affect how faculty approach the classroom. How they prioritize different aspects of teaching and learning. If you write a policy or create some procedures by which all faculty need to approach their teaching in the same way, there are going to be some faculty for whom it's a perfect fit. But there are going to be others who feel like they're doing students a disservice because they're not doing that relationship building, or they're not finding the right challenges, or they're not able to present that really vital piece of information first.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to change someone's mind to either adopt or consider more of this evidence-based research?

People can always change their perspective. If you're trying to communicate the value of a technology or an approach, or even of learning science or education research as a field, you have to start with the person you're speaking to. They may come to that conversation with a sense of, "I know that people get PhDs in education. People get PhDs in curriculum design, and I've never even taken a class where we've talked about curriculum design. I would like to know what they know.”

Then there are people who will say, "I've been teaching since I was a graduate student. My students are very happy with the teaching. I feel pretty good about my teaching. I understand that you have a PhD in curriculum design, but I don't really need that.”

You need to approach those two different faculty members differently, understanding that there are some people who are interested in hearing about evidence-based practices, and just pointing them towards the resources is great.

What about your own teaching? I'm curious. Are you someone that tries different techniques that are based on research?

Yeah, I love trying new things in my teaching. I do. Research-based teaching, or teaching effectively by the book is challenging for so many different ways. For a couple of years, I was the coordinator of the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative, and one of the parts of that job was I taught a class for doctoral candidates on university teaching. These are graduate students who are planning on getting PhDs, and virtually all of them were hoping for careers in academia. They planned to teach college students, eventually, if they weren't already.

The class was a seminar about university teaching. It was really interesting. It was really fun. But the hardest thing was that I would spend the class meeting talking about, or working with students about these principles of effective teaching, and having to demonstrate those principles in action while I was doing it.

There is so much literature, and there are so many right ways, and there are so many recommendations that incorporating all of them into your practice at the same time is literally impossible. Many of them are contradictory. You have to choose a suite that you're adhering to, because you can't do the others if you're doing these. Trying to embody best practices while teaching is really complex. It's a skillset that you develop. You develop with time, and instruction, and you can master, but you're always going to have to continue to perfect it.

I think that you can absolutely teach in evidence-based ways, but remembering that professors are human, and that even when they know all of the quote/unquote "right ways," there are still lots of [other] ways to do it right, and there are lots of reasons why it can go south.

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