Who Instructs the Instructors?

A few weeks ago, I met with a former student who is majoring in elementary education.  She was seeking my advice about minoring in communication and, during our conversation, showed me her detailed course plan for the next three years.  Every semester was strictly and completely planned.  She will study human development, cognition and motivation, literacy, curriculum design, assessment, and creativity.  She’ll even take classes devoted to educational technology and creating learning environments!

Our conversation inspired me to reflect on my own pedagogical training: a single 0ne-credit course during my Ph.D. program.

Polling my colleagues confirmed my assumption: college professors lack formal pedagogical instruction.  Many graduate programs offer students one course or colloquium that focuses on the art and science of teaching.  Some don’t offer anything.  It’s also not uncommon for advisers to discourage graduate students from spending too much time on teaching lest it distract them from their dissertation and racking up publications.  Graduate students often earn their degrees without learning an iota about managing a classroom, designing curricula, and responding to diverse student needs.2013-10-22 17.03.37

As a result, we teach the way we were taught.  And we were taught by professors who also did not receive much, if any, pedagogical training.  Thus, we bore our students with Power Points and dry lectures.

Is it any wonder that students are less engaged and motivated?  These problems will not be solved by continuing to do what we’ve always done:  focus on research at the expense of teaching.

Many professors argue that if one knows his or her subject well enough, he or she will be able to teach it.  I heartily disagree.  Possessing knowledge and transmitting knowledge are not synonymous.  Nor is being an expert the same as encouraging the development of expertise in students.  I may consider myself an expert in relational communication, but figuring out ways to explain nuanced theories to 19-year-olds requires preparation and a lot of perspective-taking.  As education scholar and professor Mike Rose argues in his Christian Science Monitor article:

Faculty become experts in a field, and then they pass on their knowledge to others through college courses. Some teachers get very good at this delivery – compelling lectures, creative demonstrations, engaging discussions, and useful assignments. But professors don’t usually think beyond their subjects to the general intellectual development of the undergraduates before them, to enhancing the way they learn and make sense of the world.

Instructing, motivating, challenging, and inspiring students requires insight into how they think.  Unfortunately, most professors are ignorant about learning models, motivation theories, and cognitive development.

Critics may suggest that if professors are concerned about their teaching, they should take it upon themselves to read about pedagogy, attend workshops, and seek advice from colleagues.  I don’t disagree that professors must continuously expand their pedagogical repertoire through self-edification.  But, realistically, how much time does the average professor have to devote to professional development pursuits?  For most, not much.  Thus, our pedagogical foundations must be laid while in graduate school.  We can then build upon those foundations as our careers continue, rather than attempting to start from scratch as brand new professors.

Graduate programs need to assess their curricula to determine how they are, or aren’t, preparing their graduates for future careers in academia.  Granted, a large percentage of Ph.D.’s never see the inside of a classroom, pursuing careers in government or industry.  But a large number will be in charge of educating future leaders and citizens.  So who is educating the educators?  Unfortunately, I don’t have a quick fix or even a proposal for you, but I do believe graduate programs need to place a greater emphasis on pedagogical instruction and mentoring.

For many Americans, a college degree is considered the key to financial stability and career achievement.  Thus, families, employers, and politicians are all pushing our young people towards college.  Over half (66%) of 2012 high school graduates were enrolled in college, about 6 in 10 attending 4-year institutions (source).  By 2020, President Obama wants the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

With such emphasis on higher education, shouldn’t we be concerned with the quality of instruction?  Why do we require K–12 teachers to jump through so many hoops while assuming college professors just intuitively know what to do in a classroom?

Further Reading:

This article focuses on science education, but so many of the authors’ points and the studies cited relate to challenges experienced in all disciplines:
Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity?

The MA program in comparative religion at Western Michigan University offers a great example of integrating pedagogical training into graduate curricula.

And the Duke University Graduate School offers Ph.D. students the opportunity to earn a “Certificate in College Teaching.”


About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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2 Responses to Who Instructs the Instructors?

  1. Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D. says:

    I don’t “bore my students with PowerPoints and dry lectures.” I received absolutely no training, not even a one-credit course, in how to teach. But I’ve won teaching awards and get glowing reviews from my students, and from other professors who’ve had students trained in my intro courses. Not to mention that knowing one’s subject matter MUST come first — otherwise the instructor is engaging and challenging students while teaching them only vaguely understood concepts and incorrect information. My son had a high school science teacher (2006) who taught the students that the speed of light and the speed of sound were the same thing! Then my son got in trouble for calling the teacher an idiot in front of the class. And believe me, I’ve seen plenty of evidence of what a poor job most teacher-training programs do of preparing K-12 teachers — “But Dr. D, in high school we learned [insert scientific gibberish here] . . . .and [more gibberish].” Not to mention that “theories of learning” are constantly changing and being discredited, also not to mention the fact that the students of today (2014) are different in so many ways from the students of my college years (1974-1985), and even from the students of 10 years ago. I was amazed to hear just recently that “no one believes in learning styles — word-based, image-based, activity-based — any more.”

    • pastprof says:

      Hi Katherine. I apologize for the delay in my response to your comment. It’s wonderful you received such instruction and mentoring, which likely played a large role in shaping the professor you are today. I worry that such attention and training is not commonplace and many new professors are simply thrown into the classroom and expected to figure it out on their own. Some are able to do this quite effectively, but many others struggle. I had wonderful mentors and even I struggled in the first few years. We spend so much time training PhD’s to be solid researchers, why can’t we also devote a bit more time to pedagogical training? Even if someone ends up at a research-intensive institution, they will still have to teach at least a couple times per year. I came across this article in the Chronicle the other day and thought it was relevant:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post and comment. This blog is a new endeavor for me, so I appreciate your insight!

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