The Chronicle of Higher Education has a rather depressing interview with Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman on the subject of science teaching. Carl is one of the leaders in efforts to significantly improve student learning of science by utilizing state-of-the-art pedagogical principles (e.g A D- in science education). He and others have demonstrated that remarkable improvements in learning can be obtained for a broad variety of disciplines in institutions of widely differing characteristics by using improved pedagogy (e.g How Learning Works.)
Most recently, he has tried to expand adoption of these approaches from the bully pulpit of his position as Associate Director of Science of The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. As described in the Chronicle article:
At the White House, Mr. Wieman tried to figure out what might actually get colleges and their faculty members to adopt proven teaching practices. His centerpiece idea was that American colleges and universities, in order to remain eligible for the billions of dollars the federal government spends annually on scientific research, should be required to have their faculty members spend a few minutes each year answering a questionnaire that would ask about their usual types of assignments, class materials, student interaction, and lecture and discussion styles.
Mr. Wieman believed that a moment or two of pondering such concepts might lead some instructors to reconsider their approaches. Also, Mr. he (sic) says, data from the responses might give parents and prospective students the power to choose colleges that use the most-proven teaching methods.
As one might imagine, this radical approach was rapidly shot down by the academic community:
"Linking federal funding for scientific research to pedagogical decisions of the faculty would have set a terrible precedent for policy makers," said Princeton University's Shirley M. Tilghman, one of several presidents of major research institutions who wrote to the White House to complain about Mr. Wieman's idea. "It is naïve to think that the 'surveys' will not have consequences down the line."
While one might well agree that it is not appropriate to tie a teaching requirement to a research grant, one wonders what "consequences" President Tilgham feared. That her faculty might begin to pay more attention to student learning? That students might use the information to choose schools that use more effective research-proven teaching techniques? Whatever her concerns, they seem to be reflective of the general hard-line insistence of higher education that it should not be held accountable for its outcomes - particularly learning outcomes.
Wieman feels that the underlying issue is that universities have created reward systems that incentivize research productivity, and disincentivize teaching, a view shared by countless other observers (see.e.g.Scientists Fault Universities as Favoring Research over Teaching). (Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring argue that it was Harvard that led us to this unfortunate position in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out.)
Of course, one understands why reward systems for faculty are biased in this way. With the major research universities showing the way, higher education has created a prestige system that emphasises faculty research in all fields, even in very many institutions that are not considered to be research colleges. The appropriate reward system to maximize institutional reputation therefore is obviously one that maximizes faculty attention to research, and minimizes rewards for activities that turn attention away from research. The faculty themselves are generally supportive of this emphasis, because research success is visible globally, teaching success only locally. Global visibility is very useful in job searches and salary negotiations.
However, the public actually cares primarily about the quality of education that their children will get, not about the quality of the research the faculty does. Thus to get the public to support its research-based prestige focus, higher education generally has had to claim that the good research leads to good teachers, and better research leads to the better teachers.
Unfortunately, that claim is not supported at the undergraduate level by most studies (e.g.Does Faculty Research Improve Undergraduate Teaching? An Analysis of Existing and Potential Synergies). These studies find no correlation between faculty research productivity and teaching effectiveness. On the contrary, other studies show that beyond a certain level of the teacher's knowledge of a subject - typically below that of a front-line researcher - it is the pedagogical approach used that turns out to be the best predictor of a successful learning experience for the students. As a consequence, greater focus on learning could begin to unravel the good researcher- good teacher fiction on which much of the traditional support of higher education and it's prestige system rests, and upon which many faculty careers have been built.
Is it any surprise that Wieman finds resistance to his efforts everywhere?