Do We Teach Disciplines, or Teach Students?

Over the 2014 holidays, a New York Times education feature highlighted the need for more “active learning” strategies in introductory math and science classes (Pérez-Peña, 2014). Despite ample evidence that lectures are of limited value as teaching strategies, states the article, “the norm in college classes – especially big introductory science and math classes, which have high failure rates – remains a lecture by a faculty member, often duplicating what is in the assigned reading.”

This is not to say that lecturing doesn’t have its place. When they’re done well, lectures can deliver content in ways that are engaging and enjoyable for students. But do students actually learn this way? Well… the answer is no. Not really. Or they learn superficially, hanging on to content only long enough to pass the final exam. Loads of research shows that students learn deeply when they DO things with what they are learning: talk about content, write stuff down, solve problems, ask questions, and present ideas. These are the foundations of active learning (Prince, 2004; Wiemer, 2013).

Why then, asks Pérez-Peña, do some faculty resist incorporating active learning into their classes? He comments on reasons we are all familiar with: teaching isn’t rewarded and recognized relative to research. Professors don’t like being told what to do.[1] The comment in the article that really stuck out for me, however, was the author’s observation that some faculty believe that “science [or insert your discipline here] should be the province of a select few.”

This made me think. Is learning “for everyone?” It’s not surprising if many faculty quietly (or not so quietly) hold the position that it shouldn’t be. Intellectual resources at the university level are best expended cultivating “the best and the brightest” minds. As Sir Ken Robinson has rightly noted, our entire formal education system is driven by the belief that academic talent is the only real currency. We start filtering for Smart People from the days our kids show up in their new school shoes with their Batman lunch boxes. Certain kinds of learning, we convey, are not for everyone.

This fundamental question – whether academic learning is for everyone, or is indeed only for a select few – is interesting because, as the NY Times comment above highlights, it may underpin some of our beliefs about teaching. If the professor believes her priority is to preserve and advance an academic discipline, she’s more likely to think of student learning as a “sink or swim” affair. Others who have stronger convictions that the undergraduate degree is a holistic and interdisciplinary experience are more likely to think of teaching in terms of conveying general abilities, attitudes, and habits of mind to a wide audience of students. In essence, it boils down to whether one believes she’s teaching students or a discipline.

This distinction appeared to be the pattern in an Australian study conducted by Simon Barrie in 2006. The study of faculty perspectives on general learning outcomes or “graduate attributes” usefully takes apart the “assumption implicit in much of the literature that academics share a common understanding” of just what it is they are doing when they are teaching (p. 219).

Based on interviews with a purposive sample of fifteen faculty from five different disciplines, Barrie concludes that instructors have very different beliefs about the purposes of their teaching. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe that “attributes” are qualities that students should already have when they enter a program of studies. For these professors, high schools should have done the work of teaching kids how to think, write and compute. Remediation, if it’s necessary, is the responsibility of the student and outside support and tutorial services. These instructors will focus on communicating the content and history of their disciplines, and will probably believe that undergraduate classes separate the wheat from the chaff, and should do so.

At the other end of what amounts to a four category spectrum, Barrie describes professors who regard their disciplines as avenues to the kinds of “attributes” proposed by a University of Alberta’s Committee on the Learning Environment (CLE) Subcommittee in 2013: creativity, moral courage, critical thinking, citizenship, and respect for diversity. These instructors are less likely to assume that students have all the tools they need to achieve these outcomes, and therefore want to shape their teaching less around “covering content” (Weimer, 2013), and more around activities that will help students to achieve general outcomes. For these instructors, the discipline is not an end unto itself, but one of many avenues toward a more engaged way of seeing the world.

These are, of course, simplifications. Whether one enjoys teaching or not, the motives and beliefs that underpin practice are complex. We all have passion for our respective disciplines, and most want to share this passion with students. Most professors, in my experience, also like their students. They just differ greatly in the extent to which they see value in taking the time (and frankly sometimes the grief) required to learn to enhance their teaching. As Barrie’s article shows, this depends in part on whether the professor believes he is teaching his discipline, or teaching the processes of reasoning, creating and communicating that underpin all good learning.


Barrie, S. C. (2006). Understanding what we mean by the generic attributes of graduates. Higher Education, 51(2), 215–241. doi:10.1007/sl0734-004-6384-7 [Open source here.]

Pérez-Peña, R. (2014, December 26). Colleges reinvent classes to keep more students in science. The New York Times.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning Work ? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, (July), 223–231.

Robinson, K. (2011). Out of our minds: Learning to be creative. Chichester: Capstone Publishing.

University of Alberta Committee on the Learning Environment (CLE) Subcommittee on Attributes and Competencies (2013). Graduate attributes at the University of Alberta. Edmonton AB: Author.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[1] With colleagues, I’ve even discussed whether incorporating “active learning” makes us complicit in poor educational practices by making enormous class sizes more palatable for students. This is an interesting take on things, and I too worry that “active learning” can distract us from the very real compromises in quality that come with teaching large classes. However, larger problems reside in our inability to assess students effectively in these classes, and this is a matter that no amount of “active learning” can address.


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