How important is it for teaching faculty to actually know how to teach (and to actually care about the success of their students)?

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

Thanks Mark for once again posting something that makes me think (and that gives me an opportunity to tough on a favorite topic: the importance of teaching quality in higher ed).

Boredom vs. Failure Part 2: The New Demographic

From Mark’s post: “What’s striking about these four results is the huge difference for students with low knowledge.  Doing it right matters a lot for these students.  What’s also striking is how it doesn’t make much difference for the high knowledge students.  In fact, in the first experiment, the low-knowledge students even did better than the high knowledge students when given integrated text plus illustrations.”

I’ve always assumed that the good students don’t really need us – they will do fine no matter what. They possess good & varied adaption & learning skills so it doesn’t matter if the instructor is boring, selfish, stuck in the 19th century, or just plain stupid. The good students will learn what they need to. That’s why it’s not much of an accomplishment when a school only lets in the best and they all succeed (well, duh). Student success in those schools says very little about the teaching quality of the faculty.

What IS a challenge when dealing with the brightest students is finding ways to engage and challenge them WITHOUT insulting or loosing the “average” and struggling students. Teaching to the brightest is easy; inspiring them further takes some imagination.

One of the biggest challenges is to take in all kinds of students and have most of THEM succeed. I’ve always thought that everyone should be able to get IN to university, but only those who can meet the standards get through. That assumes that assessment is based on performance & mastery (rather than some arbitrarily set number or some fuzzy, impossible-to-really-measure, vague quality) – now THAT takes skill.

Some places fool themselves by making their assessments so warm & fuzzy that anyone who remembers to brush their teeth in the morning will get at least a ‘B+’. “Demonstrates appreciation for…”, “Understanding of…”, “Professional quality….” These are all so vague as to be meaningless.

Others simply act as gatekeepers: the only people who get through are the ones just like them.Math & Science is famous for this: courses and tests are written so only people with the same interests and approaches to learning as the instructor can pass. This tactic is inadvertent in some cases, but almost invariably, when this is pointed out faculty respond with excuses disguised as justifications, or, more honestly with: “So what?”

Both approaches are a waste of money and resources and denigrate education as a whole.

I realize this is overly idealistic (and therefore is unlikely to happen) but the solution is to ONLY hire faculty who are actually good at what they do – BOTH in their field AND as teachers.  Sadly, even in academia, Sturgeon’s Law holds: 90% of everything is crap. Academics too. Let’s be generous here: 90% of academics are 90% crap. Education faculties are no different from Science faculties are no different from Art faculties.

On a related note, this article talks about the importance of knowing practicing what you teach:  What should we teach software developers? And why? by Bjarne Stroustrup

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