What We Have and Haven’t Learned

I’ve been asked to give a talk that explores some of the top teaching-learning lessons learned in the past 15 years. It’s a good reflection exercise that also brings up those lessons we haven’t learned or aren’t yet finished learning.

I’m figuring the best place to start is with technology. During the past 15 years, technology has become a dominating force in every aspect of our lives and that includes education. As it descended upon higher education, we didn’t start out asking the right question. We got focused on the mechanics of “How does it work?” (or, in the case of those of us not all that adept at mastering technology, “Why doesn’t it work?”) and “What can we do with it?” The better question is whether a new technology promotes learning. We are asking that question now, but still struggle with the balance between what’s possible and what promotes learning.

We’ve also discovered that technology has the power to change teacher-student relationships vis-à-vis social media and the many new ways it offers teachers and students to connect. It’s causing us to revisit professional boundaries—how, on what terms, and in what places should teachers and students interact. Our learning about this is still very much in progress.

Technology now makes access to information unbelievably easy. Answers are but a touch or a click away and yet we’re still covering content like we’re the keepers of information. Technology has changed the role of content, but most of us don’t seem to have noticed. Why aren’t we doing more to teach students how to evaluate information, synthesize and integrate it, and know when there’s enough of it? Why aren’t we grappling with how much information is enough in our courses? Will we ever challenge the assumption that more is always better?

The next lesson of the past 15 years centers on active learning. Most of us are still surprised by how much evidence supports it, but we have come to accept that student engagement is an essential aspect of learning. We are on board here theoretically, but in many (or is it most?) classrooms there is still more lecture and passivity than there should be. We can’t seem to disavow ourselves of the notion that teachers should do most of the talking. Hopefully the next 15 years will see a continued transformation that ends with students as active and involved as their teachers.

We’ve also come to understand that student learning is just as important as teaching and is not the inevitable outcome of teaching, even very good teaching. More than 15 years ago, student learning was rediscovered by college teachers and we’ve learned much about it since then. Our knowledge has been supplemented by recent advances in neuroscience that have moved us beyond a fixed set of learning styles and to the complexity and individuality of learning. Many teachers are exploring the instructional implications of what’s known about learning, but so far most of us are just scratching the surface. We have yet to truly understand that when learning becomes the expressed goal of teaching, that’s a radical realignment with the potential to change every aspect of instructional practice.

Finally, in the past 15 years we’ve learned that faculty can do intellectually robust scholarship on teaching and learning. Good pedagogical scholarship has been around for decades, but way more quality work has been published in the past 15 years than in those previous decades. We no longer believe that instructional innovations work just because teachers say they do. Their impact on learning outcomes must be objectively and systematically explored. Quantitative pedagogical scholarship has a newfound credibility with many teaching and learning journals. But because the research scholarship in our fields is what we know best and what we value most, we are aspiring to make pedagogical scholarship look like it. We haven’t yet learned that the study of teaching and learning as it occurs in courses by teachers vested in their practice is a unique form of scholarship. When conformed to the protocols and conventions of our disciplines, it loses some of its distinctive features; like the wisdom that can grow out of thoughtful, reflective practice.

We’ve learned a lot in the past 15 years, but as with all learning, it reveals how far we have to go.

Michael, J. “Where’s the Evidence that Active Learning Works?” Advances in Physiology Education, 2006, 30, 159-167.

Prince, M. “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research.” Journal of Engineering Education, July 2004, 223-231.

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