American colleges and universities are in crisis. Public trust in universities has eroded and support for financing public institutions has dropped. For many people, science itself is suspect and scholarly expertise has been delegitimized. Operating costs continue to rise, but six out of ten universities failed to meet their enrollment targets last fall. The burden of teaching increasingly falls on the shoulders of contingent faculty—more than half of the nation’s professors—who face large teaching loads, financial instability, insufficient professional development, and physical exhaustion. Too many students incur steep debt and too few complete their degrees.
And that was before the COVID-19 crisis.
One solution to these myriad problems is to improve the quality of teaching. In focusing on issues like cost and access, higher education in the US has “lost sight of the heart and soul of a college education: the teaching and learning of disciplinary knowledge.” Or so claim professors of education Aaron Pallas and Anna Neumann in their new book, Convergent Teaching: Tools to Spark Deeper Learning in College. If “we act swiftly and strategically to heighten the quality of teaching for all undergraduate students in the United States” and engage in massive systemwide reform to change the culture of education, we can restore confidence in American colleges and universities and better prepare students for productive futures.
There is much to like about an approach that highlights the discipline-based teaching that is unique to higher education. But after four years serving as director of the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL), at Dartmouth College, I’m skeptical about the prospects for such a transformation. Large-scale, top-down teaching and learning initiatives—that is, the sorts of changes proposed by Pallas and Neumann—won’t resonate with most professors, who are suspicious of proposals that don’t come from the faculty itself. Moreover, expanding professional development for faculty will cost money that most institutions don’t have—certainly not now in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, my experiences at DCAL showed me the wisdom of small-scale approaches, which engage faculty in department-level, peer-to-peer conversations about teaching—the same kinds of conversations we already have about research. The good news is that this change is already occurring. While the pandemic has unleashed a previously unthinkable level of death, disruption, and damage upon society, there are upsides. The move to all-online learning has forced faculty to talk to one another about how to adapt their teaching. It has fostered the kinds of conversations, albeit by necessity, that could bring about positive change in university teaching well into the future.
At most universities, professors have few incentives to improve their teaching.
At American universities, research is the currency of success, and professors confer about their research constantly. “What are you working on?” is a common greeting among faculty members. We discuss our work with colleagues, give talks at other universities, and present papers at conferences.
We subject our research to constant and rigorous scrutiny. Panels of experts vet requests for funding from government agencies and foundations. Papers and manuscripts submitted to scholarly outlets undergo double-blind peer review. The level of oversight ramps up at tenure and promotion time, when up to a dozen external reviewers provide a thorough assessment of a candidate’s entire research portfolio. In any academic discipline, research is the main topic of conversation, and professors can expect their work to be subject to continuous examination.
Teaching is a different story. Although most college professors spend at least as much time teaching as they do writing and conducting research, the training they receive about how to teach is typically close to zero. For most, attending workshops on the subject is something done on the side, when they have time (which is never). Few graduate programs incorporate teacher training into their curriculum. A professor who has spent a long day lecturing, holding office hours, and grading assignments will complain that they didn’t get any work done—because teaching doesn’t count the way research does. At most universities, professors have few incentives to improve their teaching.
An increasingly professionalized field of research on teaching and learning has evolved to address this lacuna, a field from which Pallas and Neumann emerge. Faculty development has been around for decades, but it exploded with the advent of digital technology. Learning-management systems such as Canvas and Blackboard and online courses are now common on university campuses. Centers for teaching and learning, like Dartmouth’s DCAL, were not uncommon in the past, but they have become hubs of innovation and moved from the margins of campus life to the center.
Learning science has become an industry unto itself, to meet the increasing demand for learning designers, educational technologists, and others who work with faculty, staff, and students to design courses and transform university pedagogy. A strong consensus exists within the learning-science community that good teaching is defined by practices that foster student learning, and that colleges and universities must devote more resources to training faculty to improve their teaching.
Pallas and Neumann are part of this teaching and learning revolution in higher education. Convergent Teaching exemplifies what’s best about the approach—and also reflects its limitations. The book introduces a new model of “convergent” pedagogy, which aims to define good teaching within the university context, and recommends a series of institutional changes to support the widespread adoption of that pedagogy.
The convergent teaching method involves three corresponding steps, which Pallas and Neumann call “targeting,” “surfacing,” and “navigating.”
Step 1: Targeting capitalizes on the discipline-specific type of knowledge that a student should acquire by majoring in a particular subject. This first step is simply to identify the core concepts of a discipline—the basic principles upon which knowledge is constructed.
In statistics, for example, the mean is a core concept. In writing and rhetoric, arguments are a core disciplinary concept. The state is a core concept on which the discipline of political science rests. For geography, it might be space. Targeting thus prioritizes teaching the kinds of learning required to think like a statistician or a writer or a political scientist.
Step 2: Convergent teaching demands that professors incorporate the prior knowledge that students bring to the table. Once the professor has identified the central concepts to teach, the next step is to unearth—or surface—students’ preexisting knowledge about those concepts.
The assumption is that today’s students arrive with backgrounds and experiences that make it harder for them to grasp college-level learning, and professors must do more to take this diversity of starting points into account. If students had inadequate math instruction in high school, they cannot be expected to jump into college-level calculus. If students are climate science deniers, they will not automatically assume that the scientific method is a valid way of generating knowledge. Surfacing means creating opportunities for students’ prior knowledge (or lack thereof) to be revealed, a prerequisite for their ideas to be reoriented or transformed and real learning to occur.
Step 3: Navigating, the third component of convergent teaching, means teachers create opportunities for disciplinary knowledge and students’ prior knowledge to interact. Ideally, navigating involves a carefully designed plan that allows students to discover or derive basic disciplinary concepts from scratch on their own, engaging in active learning rather than the ostensibly passive standard of listening to a lecture. Navigating thus highlights the art of teaching.
The more that learning science develops its own norms and argot, the more distant it becomes from the faculty.
Convergent teaching involves thoughtfully connecting the disciplinary knowledge that faculty care most about to the a priori intellectual starting points of an increasingly diverse pool of college students.
Isn’t this what professors do already? Most will certainly think so, and will see terms like “targeting” and “surfacing” as unnecessary jargon. This is an unfortunate side effect of the professionalization of learning science: the more it develops its own norms and argot, the more distant it becomes from the faculty.
Moreover, the book doesn’t provide much in the way of specific instructions. For example, while summarizing the convergent techniques employed by Allie, an English professor, the authors offer a poetic paean rather than specific takeaways: “The way Allie brings navigating to life, is strategic, calculated, watchful, and fully responsive to her views of students’ needs. It self-corrects. It evolves. It’s open to change as insights emerge through phases of planning, implementation, and retrospection. It is fully designed but cultivated, slowly, as well.”
The authors anticipate faculty pushback and dismissive attitudes toward new teaching and learning techniques: “Our fear is that most college teachers think they are doing okay in the classroom; they don’t see a problem with their own practices.” But this points to another negative assumption that sometimes underlies learning science: faculty are a problem that needs to be fixed. That may be true, but it doesn’t help persuade professors to get on board.
Let’s put specific concerns about the substance of this model aside for now and imagine that a university decided to develop a campuswide initiative to promote convergent teaching. Pallas and Neumann lay out a series of measures that universities should take to ensure the success of such a program.
Here’s what their ideal would look like: university leaders announce a high-profile teaching initiative and allocate funding to provide professional development workshops and to cover the costs of incentives for faculty to participate—including paying contingent faculty for the time they spend in those workshops. The administration tasks the center for teaching and learning with leading the initiative. The center begins by conducting a self-study to understand the baseline issues around teaching on campus. It hires enough learning designers to develop and conduct the training for the entire faculty. It hires consultants to assess the impact of the initiative on student learning, contribute to the scholarship on teaching and learning by publishing their findings in scholarly journals, and feed best practices back into the next iteration of the initiative. It hires communications staff to design a cutting-edge website and publicity materials that will garner attention from internal stakeholders, alumni, and peer institutions. The center applies for grants from funding agencies that have also created initiatives that prioritize improving the quality of college teaching. Graduate programs participate by revamping their curricula to incorporate future faculty teaching series for doctoral students. A teaching award is created to recognize excellence. The university then holds a symposium to share its experiences with other institutions, particularly less well-resourced schools.
As DCAL director, I oversaw an initiative at Dartmouth that met these criteria for success to an uncanny degree, working with a team of top-notch teaching and learning professionals to run the Experiential Learning Initiative. Efforts like the ones described above generated unprecedented faculty buy-in, leading a small percentage of professors to transform their teaching in creative and profound ways.
But, to be honest, most of those professors were already doing amazing things in their classrooms. Overall, the impact of the initiative was limited, because a majority of faculty on campus did not see a connection between their current teaching practices and the possibilities provided by the initiative. Moreover, even a rich institution like Dartmouth faces enormous challenges in sustaining such an ambitious undertaking over a long period of time.
In my experience, faculty are most likely to pay attention to teaching initiatives when they learn about them from their peers. Smaller-scale approaches that create opportunities for faculty to engage each other in regular conversations about teaching and to capitalize on what they already know cost less and will impact more students.
As with research, faculty bring native expertise to teaching but can always do better. Teaching initiatives that start from this premise and seek to “surface” what professors already do in their classrooms are likely to have a broader impact.
This brings me back to the coronavirus pandemic. The precipitous closure of residential universities has required professors to transform their teaching from one moment to the next. Amid the global lockdown, few of us can teach the way we have in the past. Professors who have never spoken to their peers about teaching are doing so now. Faculty who have never worked with teaching and learning staff before have quickly come to rely on the wisdom and support they provide. Facebook groups like “Teaching in the Time of Corona” and “Online Teaching Tips for the Plague Averse” have thousands of members and generate constant posts. In my own department, our “teaching” channel on Slack sustains a remarkable level of communication about how we are navigating the new virtual-classroom environment.
As I write this, distancing practices have been in place for six weeks. Whatever happens in the months to come, I hope that the shifts and innovations so far will provide a more durable foundation for revamping university teaching in the future.
This article was commissioned by Carolyn Dever.