The no-teacher-training-for-college-professors problem

College classrooms are supposed to be spaces where learning happens. However, far too often, neither college professors nor their students explore fundamental questions about the nature of teaching and learning in college, questions like:

  1. What is learning?
  2. How do people learn?
  3. What models for learning inform the design of my college classes?
  4. What types of instructional methods lead to significant learning experiences?
  5. How can teachers and students work together to create highly engaging learning environments?

That these questions frequently go unexamined in college courses relates to a series of problems within many U.S. higher education systems. In this post, we name and identify one such problem that results from the fact that most college professors have almost no training in the science of learning and have little experience with effective teaching practices.

The U.S. higher-education system maintains policies to ensure that content experts who get hired as full-time, tenure-track professors frequently know relatively little (compared to their content expertise) about the science of learning and have limited experience with effective teaching practices.

This first problem highlights the fact that it is possible to become a tenured-track professor at almost any accredited college in the United States with very little knowledge about the science of learning, training in the art of effective teaching, or understanding of the political forces that shape the nature of the job as a college teacher.

The minimum job qualifications for a professorship at most U.S. colleges or universities is simply to be a content expert in a specific field. Members of a search committee tasked to hire a full-time professor look for credentialed learners with multiple undergraduate and graduate degrees in a certain subject area who have also amassed impressive academic accolades. This expertise looks great on paper and does indeed represent monumental achievements in our society.

However, if we look more closely, the coursework and degree requirements needed to earn most undergraduate, graduate, or professional degrees include almost no formal training on how learning works or in the craft of effective teaching. This leads to a reality in which most professors at U.S. colleges start their careers in the classroom without knowing much about how to teach effectively for diverse student populations. And yet, the moment these professors start their work as teachers, they assume responsibility for guiding the learning of college students.

Such policies and hiring practices result in a system that is run by the apprenticeship of observation. I define this to be the practice of designing classroom policies by reflecting internally on one’s own lived experiences. Some central questions asked by professors who use the apprenticeship of observation as a guiding philosophical framework in their teaching practices include:

  • What teaching and learning policies did my own college professors use in the classes I took?
  • How did those policies work for me?
  • How can I recreate the policies my college teachers used on me to teach my classes?

This type of myopic decision making is completely logical in a system that puts professors in an impossible work environment. When newly-hired professors are dumped into a classroom and find themselves responsible for inspiring tens or even hundreds of students to learn deeply, what other choice do they have but to rely on introspection to guide their teaching decisions. However, the apprenticeship of observation is not an effective way to inspire deep learning for diverse students.

Any person who is hired in a full-time position as a college professor was most likely one of the highest-performing students while they earned their own undergraduate, graduate, or technical degrees. Because of inequitable structures in so many aspects of modern-day societies, this high performance is likely tied to socioeconomic, racial, family, and geographic factors that serve to bolster such achievement. In other words, statistically speaking, people who get hired as full-time college professors probably enjoyed an upbringing filled with privilege and support that made deep learning a much easier task. Those factors bolster high performance independent of the learning environment. I should explicitly state that there are professors who come from diverse backgrounds and overcome significant barriers to ascend to the upper echelons of our education system. However, if we look at the ratio of the number of these types of professors divided by the total number of tenured college professors in the U.S., that ratio is far smaller than it ought to be.

The point of this discussion is that the apprenticeship of observation leads to some large errors in thinking about how to meet the needs of diverse students. If the guiding framework for constructing policies in college classes is to reflect on one’s own lived experiences, then the resulting decisions often center dominant social constructions that have little to do with the lived realities and learning needs of the diverse group of students sitting inside any college classroom.

Community Challenge

  1. Now that you are aware of the no-teacher-training-for-college-professors problem, can you imagine some simple changes that might result in better teaching in college classrooms?

  2. Think about your own experiences in college. What evidence do you have that some of your college professors were not necessarily effective teachers? What policies did some of your teachers use that might have actively blocked your ability to learn and grow in some of your classes? How did it make you feel that you were sacrificing so much of yourself to earn a degree and some of your professors might not have been fully invested in your learning?

  3. If you were labeled as “highly successful” in college, think about the privileges you had in your personal life that supported this success? How much of your success was due to the unique circumstances of your up bringing? How much was due to each of your college teachers? Which teachers had more influence over your success? Which had less?

  4. If you struggled to earn good grades in college, work to separate your learning from your grades. Specifically, work to identify your strengths as a learner. How did your own innate genius shine in your college classes, independent of the judgements of your professors? Remember that often those who are least powerful in a system have the clearest view of that system. In other words, students who struggle most in college often know more about the underbelly of our systems than professors do. Thus, as you reflect on your own experiences, identify what aspects of the college experience you would change if you had the power.

  5. What do you define as highly effective teaching? Remember that a teacher serves many students at the same time. Try to get out of the mindset of thinking about your own learning needs as the only ones that matter inside a classroom. As you work to create a vision for highly effective teaching, imagine a related question: what do you define as highly effective surgery? Let’s run a thought experiment to make this analogy more clear. Suppose a surgeon is to operate on 30 people over an 10-week time period. After those 10 weeks pass, the hospital notices that only 3 of those 30 people enjoyed spectacular outcomes. Another 15 of those people had mediocre outcomes and continue to suffer some health consequences. Finally, 12 of those people died either during or immediately after surgery. Would you define that as highly effective? If you were one of the people who had spectacular outcomes, would it be acceptable for that surgeon to continue their practice simply because you were lucky enough to avoid a less-than-spectacular recovery? Would you want other surgeons to model their work on the practices of your surgeon? Now, go back to our question about highly effective teaching and remember the types of outcomes you expect in surgery. Effective surgery is focused on supporting the physical health of each patient. Effective teaching is focused on supporting the learning health of each student. What is effective teaching? How do you know it when you see it? How can you identify when effective teaching is absent?

  6. Which of your college professors would you categorize as highly effective teachers? Why? What did these people do that made them highly effective? What did you like about their classes? Were these people effective for all of the students in their classes?

  7. Do a little research online. How much money do highly effective surgeons make? How much money to college professors get paid? What does this say about how we as a society value surgery versus how we value teaching? How many patients can a doctor effectively serve at any one time? In other words, suppose a doctor is tasked with the physical health of their patient? How many patients can that person actually serve? How many students are in a typical college classroom? How many students are college professors required to serve in each academic term?

  8. Count the total number of teachers you had in college and put that number in the denominator of a fraction. Now count the number of teachers you had that you would categorize as highly effective and put that number in the numerator. In other words, in the top of your fraction count the number of teachers that you feel had a monumental impact on your learning and your identity. Calculate that ratio. What comes up for you as you run this thought experiment?

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