Last week, Nigel Thrift, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick in England, wrote a compelling article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the article, Thrift presents a radical change in how undergraduate teaching will be done in the future. Thrift writes: “most teaching in the early years of an undergraduate degree will gradually cease to be via lectures and will instead take the form of online presentations produced by professionally trained presenters backed up by teams of academics.” To support these online presentations, students would participate in “peer questioning” activities that would help them build understanding of the material. Thrift’s vision of the future also includes instructors engaging with students in peer-to-peer social networks and physical learning spaces evolving to include more adaptable, fluid structures that can be easily changed depending on need.
Since Thrift presents a radical departure from today’s undergraduate experience, his article garnered quite a few comments from Chronicle readers. Some comments commended Thrift’s vision and his willingness to present a possible model for discussion. Others, however, examined the online presentations that Thrift proposes which began a thread on traditional lecturing and their perceived effectiveness. As one commenter wrote in defense of traditional lectures, “Odd that lectures have promoted ‘deep learning’ for hundreds of years–have they suddenly stopped working?” Another commenter posted that s/he “grieves” the change in education and that “we are so busy changing that we rarely pause to acknowledge our feelings about what we have lost.”
These comments brought to mind a video I watched recently. Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, gave the keynote at the Education Innovation Summit held in Scottsdale in April 2012. In his keynote, Crow presents the need for “massive change” in education but also outlines some of the potential hurdles to change. Education, Crow argues, suffers from filiopietism, which is the “excessive veneration for tradition.” It’s why instructors “grieve” the coming changes in Education or hold onto lessons that they say have worked “for hundreds of years.”
Crow’s position calls to mind a story I heard a few years ago. A mother was teaching her daughter how to roast a turkey. In the lesson, the mother removed the drumsticks and wings and repositioned them in the pan. The daughter asked why she needed to do this. Did it help the turkey cook faster? Did it make the turkey tenderer? “I never really thought about that,” the mother explained “It’s just the way I was taught by your grandmother. We should ask her.” The mother calls the grandmother and asks why she dismembered the bird prior to roasting. The grandmother laughs and explains “The turkey wouldn’t fit in the pan we owned so I had to cut it up to make it fit.” And so, the family tradition began.
By sharing this story, I don’t mean to suggest that instructors blindly make educational decisions without thought or reason. The challenge, however, is that many of us who work in higher education are the successful products of the tradition of higher education. We’ve navigated coursework, lectures, and thesis defenses and been successful. Yet, we’re the ones that need to bring about the change that is needed for higher education to survive. To do this, we have to fight the urge to hold onto century old methods and overcome “our veneration of tradition.” But we need not change just for the sake of change. We need to strongly examine everything we’re doing and analyze how it supports our larger mission of student learning.