What’s wrong with Faculty Development?

I have thinking about faculty development a lot lately.  And differently than before. Before, I worked in a Teaching & Learning Centre at a university. Now, I work with and across all publicly funded post-secondary institutions in BC.  The distance from being a day-to-day “service provider” of faculty development, plus more access to conversations about it with colleagues from all over, leads me to wonder if something is fundamentally wrong with our whole approach.

For starters, I’m not sure the purpose of faculty development offerings is clear.  Or, if clear, if it’s the right purpose.  In the past, I would have said the purpose is something like, “to help faculty be better/more effective teachers” or “to improve the student learning experience”.  Higher ed instructors have deep subject matter expertise, and practical experience, but they don’t always have a background in big-E Education. So, Faculty Development programs exist to help shoot the gap. It’s a good idea, but I’m not sure it works as well as it could. Because you hear stuff like this:

  • how can we get them (faculty) to attend? (carrots? sticks? badges? money? time?)
  • we need to get them (faculty) to ___________  (use learning outcomes, use more active/participatory strategies, stop lecturing so much, follow the template, etc…)
  • Faculty say: I don’t have time for this on top of _____________ (research, publication, administrative duties, marking, teaching, the fact that I’m just a contractor, etc.)
  • Do faculty want to be “developed” (in this way? by these people?)?

So I have been noodling this around, and then I came across this article: From Teaching To Learning –  a New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education, by Robert Barr & John Tagg. (Full disclosure and  shameless plug: I “came across” this article in the description of our keynote speaker, Dr. Eric Davis, at the upcoming  Symposium on Scholarly Inquiry into Teaching and Learning Practice.)

As Davis notes, this article is from 1995 (so we forgive the whole, “paradigm shift” lingo – it would have still been fresh back then). But the article explores a simple yet important idea:  what if we were fundamentally concerned with – and organized around –  learning, instead of teaching?

Barr & Tagg argue:

…our dominant paradigm mistakes a mean for an end (my emphasis). It takes the means or method – called “instruction” or “teaching” – and makes it the […]end or purpose. To say that the purpose of colleges is to provide instruction is like saying that General Motors’ business is to operate assembly lines or that the purpose of medical care is to fill hospital beds.

Right. What would faculty evaluations (and student assessment, for that matter) look like if we were …

[…] concerned with learning productivity, not teaching productivity [?]

When I started my formal Education education, I recall a professor warning us not to break our legs jumping on and off the bandwagons in this field. Nearly 2 decades in, I see he was spot-on. Here is a brief look back at the swings I’ve noticed in “my time”, packaged (for kicks) in a reference to the story of the Three Bears:

  • Teacher – centred (this porridge is too hot!): as a student in university, I attended a great many lectures about content (which was also in the expensive text). Of course they weren’t all bad – probably about 25% of lectures were good-to-great.  The rest were forgettable-to-boring. But I passively sat and listened, wrote down what they said, crammed, exam-ed, and passed with flying colours thanks to the miracle of short-term memory.
  • Student-centred (this porridge too cold!): as an employee of universities, I saw a swing toward “student-centredness”, which too often had the uncomfortable tone of  “student-as-paying-customer” and concern for “customer service satisfaction”. I’m all for students having a positive experience, of course. But sometimes it became a bit…rich.
  • Learning-centred (this porridge could be juuuust riiiight): I’m pinning my hopes on a swing to learning-centredness as an alternative to teacher- or student-centredness.  There is much for us to get excited about and do to make this shift in culture and practice (e.g., we all need to bone up learning, how it occurs, and about assessment practices, for example). I am really looking forward to Dr. Davis’ keynote to hear his perspective as a Provost and Vice President Academic. It may sound hokey, but I can imagine a richer, more collaborative team approach from the whole “village” of wonderful folks who work at every college, institute, and university in service of student learning.  A focus on learning (as opposed to one or another stakeholder group…) is to be aligned with the right purpose, no?  And the good news is, it’s already happening – we see it in increased interest and activity around things like learning analytics and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and teaching-track appointments.

So now what I’m thinking about: what would faculty development programs and offerings look like if their purpose was fostering learning-centredness? If the cultures and practices of higher ed were  learning-centred, what would be the impact on the work of faculty, students, support staff, administrators, boards, committees, governments, quality processes, credentialing, and Maclean’s University rankings?


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