A Retrospective Commentary on the Future of Teaching

Future of Teaching

“We are very good at teaching students how to solve problems for which we already know the answers. The challenge is to teach them strategies for tackling problems we’ve yet to solve.”

Christopher Knapper made that comment when I interviewed him for an article, “What Should the Future of Teaching Be Like?” for the February 1988 issue of The Teaching Professor. Chris, now retired, was a professor of psychology and director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Queens University in Ontario. His book, Lifelong Learning in Higher Education, coauthored with Arthur Cropley, describes a different kind of educational experience. It rests on the notion that learning can happen anywhere and at any time, not just in formal educational experiences that happen within designated time frames. The book was visionary, before its time, but with messages still relevant to educators today. I asked Chris to share his current thinking about education in light of the comment. Here’s what he wrote.

When in 1988 I advocated teaching students how to cope with problems where the solutions were as yet unknown, in fact I should have gone further and included those problems that we have not even properly identified or defined. Including them implies an approach to higher education that goes far beyond mastering the conventional content of a field. Instead it focuses on cultivating students’ capacities to develop their own flexible learning and self-evaluation strategies—strategies that will inevitably change over time and in different contexts. I now think that even the notion of field of study is problematic, especially in a world where the problems we confront transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, and in an era when only a minority of students, even in the professions, will subsequently work in the field of their major.

Arthur Cropley and I were trying to argue for this broader kind of education in our book on lifelong learning—which, by the way, is a much misunderstood term that was subsequently hijacked and used as an all-purpose slogan for promoters of lifelong schooling and continuing education. Perhaps a better name would be life-wide learning. That term stresses the importance of learning not just over a lifetime, but also from a wide range of sources beyond those encountered in school and college, including libraries, the Internet, friends, and colleagues. Paradoxically, this is the way most of us (including academics) learn new knowledge and skills, but not something we emphasize in most university courses.

Have the past 30 years seen changes in higher education that meet the goals we advocated? There is now a widespread, if not universal, acceptance of the notion that colleges need to prepare students to be creative, adaptable problem solvers. But walking this conceptual talk is another matter, and too much of our contemporary university education involves teacher talk rather than student thinking and doing. Teaching approaches are still predominantly didactic (and I include most MOOCs here), and a good deal of assessment of student learning is trivial and inauthentic. True, there have been some promising innovations such as problem-based and inquiry learning. But it is sadly the case that, even when progressive approaches are shown to improve learning outcomes, once the teachers directing such programs leave or the funding that launched them runs out, there is all too often a recidivism to the traditional.

How do we explain this, when innovations in other spheres, such as manufacturing and health services, generally take root much more readily? There are many possible explanations, ranging from lack of preparation in teaching for most faculty (where North America lags badly behind Europe and Australia), academic rewards that emphasize research and publications over teaching effectiveness, increased faculty workloads, more part-time and contract teachers, and the declining morale that accompanies all these factors. But I suspect the main obstacle to sustaining change is the viselike grip that higher education institutions maintain over the credentialing system, along with complicit employers who use possession of a university degree in a traditional discipline as a surrogate for genuine evidence of ability and potential.

Sorry to say, but despite the years that have passed since the observation I made in 1988, not enough change has occurred in what or how we teach students. Those who read and contribute to publications like these offer a glimmer of hope for the future, but the prevailing vision of higher education remains largely unchanged even though the world around us is an entirely different place.


Knapper, C. K., & Cropley, A. J.  (2000). Lifelong learning in higher education (3rd ed.).  London, UK:  Kogan Page.

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