I came across a study recently that sort of stopped me in my tracks. The study made absolute sense but the presentation really made me think about how I offer professional development for faculty and how I teach my students on campus. Here’s a synopsis.
In a study involving 13 different professors at a large university in Canada, researchers examined how participants visualized effective teaching and the types of learning strategies they used. The researchers also examined the types of instructional objectives the participants had for their students and how they integrated technology into their classroom. Through the interviews, the researchers were able to categorize the participating professors into three different categories based on their models of effective teaching: teacher-centered, engagement-centered or learning-centered. This categorization on its own isn’t that surprising. We all work with colleagues who are teacher-centered and lecture through classes. We have colleagues who work to provide engaging classes and others who focus heavily on their students’ development. The interesting part, however, is how these categorizations matched with the professors’ instructional strategies, learning objectives and levels of technology integration. Professors who were categorized as “teacher-centered” tended to use instructional strategies and technologies that supported didactic, lecture-based classrooms. The professors who were categorized as being “engagement-centered” tended to use strategies and technologies that reflected this framework. The ones who were categorized as being “learning-centered” used technologies and teaching strategies that supported this.
On first glance, this research shouldn’t be that surprising. If instructors believe that students learn a certain way, it makes sense that their chosen strategies and technologies match those beliefs. The challenge, however, is that the professors in the study were all placed in active learning classrooms where the tools, technologies and classroom layout were designed to support collaborative learning. While the instructors had access to means to support engagement-centered or learning-centered teaching, they chose teaching-centered instruction.
So, why do I find this research article so powerful? I think it comes down to how institutions drive innovation. Many schools and colleges are investing in building new learning spaces and incorporating new technologies into their institutions. The hope is that these new tools and spaces on their own will act as catalysts to spark innovative teaching practices. But that’s not how it happens. To really change practice, fundamental beliefs of teaching and learning have to be addressed. Simply building new classrooms or purchasing new computers isn’t going to make an impact. We have to start with learning.
But that’s also the disheartening part of the research. We know that active learning works. But the inertia of teacher-centered instruction is overpowering. It’s the model that many instructors experienced as students and in which they were successful. These lived histories inform their pedagogical beliefs and impact the instructional strategies they employ and the instructional technologies they use. While we can provide access and training for different ways of teaching and integrating technology, the reality is unless we promote evidence-based conceptualizations of how students learn, our efforts won’t make much of an impact.
Gebre, E, Saroyan, A. & Aulls, M. (2015). Conceptions of effective teaching and perceived use of computer technologies in active learning classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 27 (2), 204-220.