What Is The Future Of The Disciplinary Expert In The Academy?

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  1. Avatar Kazzy
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    Alex,

    What struck me about this piece is how much of the tension you describe is present on the other end of the education spectrum, where I work, in early childhood education. What this tells me is that this tension is consistent throughout our education system, though likely takes different forms in different contexts. I don’t know of any K-12 schools that have anything akin to a PER program, but most encourage or require teachers to taking part in continuing teacher education, sending them out to class, conferences, or workshops to learn from experts on best practices and pedagogy.

    Where I think many of these “teaching the teacher” programs fall flat, be they designed for pre-K teachers like myself or theoretical physicists like yourself, is when they attempt to make universal declarations. Students, no matter what age, are unique and individual. Some will learn better from teaching practice A while others will learn better from teaching practice B. Perhaps the vast majority will do better with A than B, making A preferable if individual tailoring of instructional methods is not possible; but that doesn’t make A better than B or A right and B wrong. In such a circumstance, one would ideally teach primarily using method A but would sprinkle in method B. This ensures all students would get some opportunity to learn in their “first language” while also stretching students to work through times of difficulty and become more flexible as learners.

    Looking more specifically, I have long championed socio-constructivist teaching, which often gets simplified down to having students do projects in groups. I recently came across an article (which I need to read more thoroughly and write up) that showed this approach might only benefit top-level students; others generally won’t make the same gains and need to learn from a “sage on a stage”. Vygotsky’s theory was predicated on interacting with others who are within one’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), which is defined as what an individual cannot do independently but can do with guidance. I see no reason why a professor with an expertise cannot serve as just such a “learning partner” for a college student.Report

  2. Avatar Kimmi
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    Why is it only physics that supports “physics education” professionals? I don’t see folks in CS, Chemistry, Biology devoting their professional career to “teaching people how to learn our material better.”Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kimmi
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      Why is it only physics that supports “physics education” professionals? I don’t see folks in CS, Chemistry, Biology devoting their professional career to “teaching people how to learn our material better.”

      Physics has one particular problem (and math the same problem, to an even greater degree IMO, so I’ll stick with that) that most of the other areas don’t, and that problem is what gets the field interested in teaching methods. Every engineering and science discipline sends all of their beginning students over to the math department for three semesters of calculus and a semester of differential equations. Maybe linear algebra too. They want their students to learn the mechanics as quickly as possible, then come “home” to learn how the individual disciplines make use of that math. So the math department is in the position that the vast majority of the student-hours they teach are to students that, even though they’re in technical fields, aren’t going to be mathematicians. So many students that logistics sort of dictates the 700-seat lecture hall and the face-to-face part left to the tender mercies of the TAs [1]. So at the least, there’s an interest in how to do a better job of teaching calculus to all those students.

      [1] While I was in graduate school at the University of Texas in the 1970s, the state legislature considered a bill that would have required that all the freshman and sophomore classes be taught by a full-time member of the faculty, with a limit on class size. The head of the math department was testifying before one of the education committees, where he was asked, “What would it take for your department to implement this law?” His answer was, “Funding for 100 more full-time faculty members; or make the engineering school teach calculus to their own students.”Report

      • Avatar Alex in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        Oh, to live in a world where the state legislature would even think of mandating that classes be smaller instead of larger.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Alex
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          says:

          As I recall, the bill was sponsored by some legislators whose children had recently been through the “TA from hell” experience that occurs from time to time. The math department at UT in those days actually worked quite hard to try to keep those situations from happening.Report

  3. Avatar Alex
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    Well, other disciplines in the sciences do seem to have an increasing presence of pedagogy researchers, i.e. people whose affiliation is in a department of chemistry or biology or whatever, but whose research focus is on educational methods. Physics just seems to have gotten a head start on it.

    I’m told that math has a long history of educational research, but my outsider impression is that most of it has focused on k-12 and I don’t know what fraction of them sit in the Math Department instead of the College of Education or whatever.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Alex
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      I’m told that math has a long history of educational research, but my outsider impression is that most of it has focused on k-12 and I don’t know what fraction of them sit in the Math Department instead of the College of Education or whatever.

      35 years ago my undergraduate school had just this type of major, with contributions from both departments. The focus was indeed on K-12, and stopped just short of calculus. As best I can recall, PhDs in that area were awarded by the College of Education, not the math department. But math department folks participated in the summer seminars run for high-school math teachers.

      As a first-year graduate student I took a theoretical topology class taught in a learning-by-doing style (usually called the “Moore Method” in math circles after Robert Lee Moore). At that point I could cut it; I’m not sure that I could have managed without four years as an undergraduate learning how to learn math.Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP
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    When the telephone was invented, a good many people, including Alexander Graham Bell, predicted it would be wonderful educational tool. When television began, the same wishful thinking was seen again. The Internet began as a footnoting tool for scientific research. Thanks, CERN.

    With every such fad-du-jour, there’s always been this handwringing in the educational community, trying to stay relevant.

    I’ve said it before: the best teachers don’t cram us full of facts like so many unfortunate geese whose livers will be converted to foie gras. The wise teacher teaches us how to learn.

    Physics is the anatomy of the real world.

    My mother had a wonderful friend at Olean Hospital, a pathologist, a skirt chaser and a thoroughly enjoyable rogue, one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever known. I’d been doing pen and ink renderings. My mother showed him a few. He took a human femur off his shelf and said “Draw that. It’s my favourite bone.” I laboured over it for weeks, brought the illustration back, he paid me something like sixty dollars for it.

    At some point, as every student who took an anatomy and physiology class knows come final exam time, there’s the dissection cadaver with all the labelled pins in it and there you are, with a numbered list. I had a wonderful A&P professor. Worked with pigs. Knew more about swine than was good for anyone and I took a real shine to the guy. We stayed friends for years afterwards. He made those pins mean something to me.

    The sage on the stage is only the latest incarnation of the learning process, especially in a subject like Physics. The current act, if you will. His predecessors, the K-12 teachers who first showed the kids how balls roll down inclined planes and how ice forms and prisms create rainbows, they’re the prior acts. Different day, different sage. Now it’s the current sage’s turn to recapitulate and expand upon the subject.

    All this concentration on facts and techniques and efficiency is missing the point, it seems to me. Every professor is best served to approach his subject as if he were drawing a map, illustrating his subject.

    Maybe I’m just naive to say this but we ought to give professors more leeway to draw that map without constantly riding herd on them. What is the point of someone dedicating that much effort to gaining mastery of a subject and defending a dissertation — only to have some well-meaning moron who couldn’t possibly teach the class — telling the professor how to teach the class? It’s nonsense. It defeats the entire purpose of education.Report

  5. Avatar KatherineMW
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    I’m not familiar with current education research, but I do have lots of experience being a university student, so here’s my view from that perspective.

    At the undergraduate level, especially in the sciences, the focus seems to necessarily be on learning all of the basic building blocks and foundational material that you need in order to do any further work in the subject, or to develop your own ideas. Which means lots of memorization (in biology) and lots of practice on reactions and equation (in chemistry and physics). Because if you don’t know the basics, you can’t move beyond them.

    In the labs that I took, we were mainly doing experiments where we already knew what the results should be, not doing original research. I don’t think this was bad – it was necessary, because at the lower undergrad level when you get an unexpected or unusual result, there’s a 99% chance that the reason is “you screwed up the experiment,” not “you’ve made a fascinating new discovery!” By the 3rd and 4th year levels there’s a little more space to move beyond that.

    I’ve had classes where we used the electronic clickers, but I didn’t find them overly useful. I think the online quizzes are a little overrated too – the problem is that when you have a paper quiz, and you get a question wrong, there’s a higher chance of going to the prof after class or during office hours and asking about where you went wrong, and learning something. If you have an online quiz, you generally just fill it out, look at your score, and forget about it; there’s no physical piece of paper that you can carry around with you until you remember to ask about it.

    I value profs who are experts in their subjects and who also enjoy teaching, because even in lectures they can add things like talking about a new discovery in the field, or relating what you’re learning to common academic debates; they just have more depth of knowledge to draw on. They also tend to be enthusiastic about their field, which makes learning a lot more fun. If someone has a basic foundation in physics and has spent most of their life researching educational methods, then it’s probably educational methods that are their passion. I don’t think that’s desirable at the university level. Having a prof who is speaking about a specific topic that they love, and which it’s clear that they love, is more engaging and leaves more room for drawing in interesting material that’s not in the specific curriculum, and that’s not something to undervalue.

    Taking someone who loves research and dislike teaching and making them teach – well, it’s not typically a disaster in my experience, but it’s not ideal either. I’d prefer that the university would let those researchers do their research, and bring in people who actually like teaching and have some skill in it – even if they only have an MA in the subject – if they can’t find enough faculty who want to teach. (But that means the university has to hire more people, which costs more money, so the universities don’t like to do it, and when the do they severely underpay these teachers, which is a serious problem.)

    I don’t think all the faculty should need to be publishing research regularly. If someone already has depth in the subject, and has published papers before, and now just wants to focus on teaching, I think that’s great and universities should be open to it. Teaching ability, and love of teaching, is too often undervalued at the university level.Report

  6. Avatar Michael Cain
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    I don’t think all the faculty should need to be publishing research regularly. If someone already has depth in the subject, and has published papers before, and now just wants to focus on teaching, I think that’s great and universities should be open to it.

    One of the really worrying — at least to me — things that is occurring in some disciplines is the two-tier faculty system. A small number of faculty are tenured, do research, etc. The second tier are “just” teachers. No way to earn tenure. No guarantees of employment beyond the current school year. In some cases, paid by the credit hour and a ridiculous load needed to earn what the most-junior of the tenure-track professors earn. Hopefully there’s a piece about this in the pipe somewhere for this week.Report

  7. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    You know, when I read ‘Disciplinary Expert’, I thought for a minute this post was going a completely different direction…Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    I was thinking maybe ‘Discipline Expert’ would work better, but upon reflection, that sounds even more gimp-suity.Report

  9. Avatar Reformed Republican
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    I think my best learning was not so much the “sage on the stage” but the sage in his office. I did not learn to take advantage of it until my junior year, but what I learned from visits during office hours had much more real-world application than the facts that I learned in class. In the same way, the professor that I did research for taught me much more than I got from classes, and it was information that was better retained because it was put into immediate application.

    There was definitely a lot that I learned in class, but it was stuff that could easily be picked up from a book.Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to Reformed Republican
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      Yep. The sage in his office. The sage after class. The sage arguing in the lunch hall with her fellow professors… hard to provide that experience to the number of undergraduates we have these days though. Without, you know, focusing on hiring more professors.Report

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