A Difficult Argument: Can We Accept “Academic Freedom” In Defence of Poor Teaching?

Let me frame this very carefully, because I realise that I am on very, very volatile ground with any discussion that raises the spectre of a right or a wrong way of teaching. The educational literature is equally careful about this and, very sensibly, you read about rates of transfer, load issues, qualitative aspects and quantitative outcomes, without any hard and fast statements such as “You must never lecture again!” or “You must use formative assessment or bees will consume your people!”

Not even your marching bands will be safe!

I am aware, however, that we are seeing a split between those people who accept that educational research has something to tell them, which may possibly override personal experience or industry requirement, and those who don’t. But, and let me tread very carefully indeed, while those of us who accept that the traditional lecture is not always the right approach realise that the odd lecture (or even entire course of lectures) won’t hurt our students, there is far more damaging and fundamental disagreement.

Does education transform in the majority of cases or are most students ‘set’ by the time that they come to us?

This is a key question because it affects how we deal with our students. If there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ students, ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ or ‘hardworking’ and ‘lazy’, and this is something that is an immutable characteristic, then a lot of what we are doing in order to engage students, to assist them in constructing knowledge and placing into them collaborative environments, is a waste of their time. They will either get it (if they’re smart and hardworking) or they won’t. Putting a brick next to a bee doesn’t double your honey-making capacity or your ability to build houses. Except, of course, that students are not bees or bricks. In fact, there appears to be a vast amount of evidence that says that such collaborative activities, if set up correctly in accordance with the established work in social constructivism and cognitive apprenticeship, will actually have the desired effect and you will see positive transformations in students who take part.

However, there are still many activities and teachers who continue to treat students as if they are always going to be bricks or bees. Why does this matter? Let me digress for a moment.

I don’t care if vampires, werewolves or zombies actually exist or not and, for the majority of my life, it is unlikely to make any difference to me. However, if someone else is convinced that she is a vampire and she attacks me and drain my blood, I am just as dead as if she were not a vampire – of course, I now will not rise from the dead but this is of little import to me. What matters is the impact upon me because of someone else’s practice of their beliefs.

If someone strongly believes that students are either ‘smart enough’ to take their courses or not, they don’t care who fails or how many, and that it is purely the role of the student to have or to spontaneously develop this characteristic then their impact will likely be high enough to have a negative impact on at least some students. We know about stereotype threat. We’re aware of inherent bias. In this case, we’re no longer talking about right or wrong teaching (thank goodness), we’re talking about a fundamentally self-fulfilling prophecy as a teaching philosophy. This will have as great an impact to those who fail or withdraw as the transformation pathway does to those who become better students and develop.

It is, I believe, almost never about the bright light of our most stellar successes. Perhaps we should always be held to answer (or at least explain) for the number and nature of those who fall away. I have been looking for statements of student rights across Australia and the Higher Education sites all seem to talk about ‘fair assessment’ and ‘right of appeal’, as well as all of the student responsibilities. The ACARA (Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority) website talks a lot about opportunities and student needs in schools. What I haven’t yet found is something that I would like to see, along these lines:

“Educational is transformational. Students are entitled to be assessed on their own performance, in the context of their opportunities.”

Curve grading, which I’ve discussed before, immediately forces a false division of students into good and bad, merely by ‘better’ students existing. It is hard to think of something that is fundamentally less fair or appropriate to the task if we accept that our goal is improvement to a higher standard, regardless of where people start. In a curve graded system, the ‘best’ person can coast because all they have to do is stay one step ahead of their competition and natural alignment and inflation will do the rest. This is not the motivational framework that we wish to establish, especially when the lowest realise that all is lost.

I am a long distance runner and my performances will never set the world on fire. To come first in a race, I would have to be in a small race with very unfit people. But no-one can take away my actual times for my marathons and it is those times that have been used to allow me to enter other events. You’ll note that in the Olympics, too. Qualifying times are what are used because relative performance does not actually establish any set level of quality. The final race? Yes, we’ve established competitiveness and ranking becomes more important – but then again, entering the final heat of an Olympic race is an Olympian achievement. Let’s not quibble on this, because this is the equivalent of Nobel and Turing awards.

And here is the problem again. If I believe that education is transformative and set up all of my classes with collaborative work, intrinsic motivation and activities to develop self-regulation, then that’s great but what if it’s in third-year? If the ‘students were too dumb to get it’ people stand between me and my students for the first two years then I will have lost a great number of possibly good students by this stage – not to mention the fact that the ones who get through may need some serious de-programming.

Is it an acceptable excuse that another academic should be free to do what they want, if what they want to do is having an excluding and detrimental effect on students? Can we accept that if it means that we have to swallow that philosophy? If I do, does it make me complicit? I would like nothing more than to let people do what they want, hey, I like that as much as the next person, but in thinking about the effect of some decisions being made, is the notion of personal freedom in what is ultimately a public service role still a sufficiently good argument for not changing practice?

3 Comments on “A Difficult Argument: Can We Accept “Academic Freedom” In Defence of Poor Teaching?”

  1. I’m confused by the phrase “if we accept that our goal is improvement to a higher standard, regardless of where people start”, since it has two very different possible interpretations. One is that our goal is to provide a positive derivative for all students, the other is to get as many as possible up to a specified threshold. The two goals are both reasonable, but may be in direct conflict. Getting as many as possible past a particular threshold encourages concentrating on those near the threshold (doing little for those way above or way below the threshold). Giving everyone a positive derivative may require a lot of effort at the extreme ends (where changes are harder) and result in the average amount learned being small for everyone.

    Most engineering faculty put their effort into moving the bulk of the class to at least minimal competence, and encouraging the top of the class to go further. The price is that less attention is paid to the bottom of the class, some of whom may indeed learn nothing and fail the course.

    The problem is one of resource allocation (the resource being teacher time, mostly). Allocating too much time to a small segment of the class hurts the rest of the class. Trying to reduce a failure rate to negligible numbers (which seems to be your goal in this message), requires putting huge amounts of attention on those at the bottom of class, resulting in very little for the rest of the class—not an optimal allocation of resources.


    • nickfalkner says:

      I acknowledge the resource issue but I’m not sure that I agree that the bottom of the class is guaranteed to be a consistent time sink if we actually manage to improve their performance. Yes, if these students can never be brought up to the same ‘speed’ then we will need to invest more effort. However, if their perceived ‘speed’ is a result of poor preparation and previous experiences then, correctly handled, there’s no reason that they can’t improve.

      I’m never advocating for easy passes and there is a point at which a student is going to reject help to the point that I cannot help them, in this course and at this time. I don’t see this as a matter of attention during the teaching activity but a matter of design and consideration prior to teaching taking place, especially in the formation of activities and the thought given to the wide range of students.

      Ultimately, yes, I’m trying to reduce the failure rates but legitimately, by raising the students to the right level. I still believe that this can be achieved through the careful and considered construction of learning materials and environments, rather than the application of raw effort during the teaching times. I’m arguing for better tools and levers, in the hope of keeping educator effort at a manageable level. I don’t want educators to burn out, chasing equity, any more than I want students to fail who have the capability to do more.


      • I think, though, that pedagogical approaches need to be evaluated on their overall effect on the whole class, not just their effect on the failure rate. There are many pedagogical approaches that can reduce the failure rate, but often at the cost of not moving the top of the class forward. I think that a reasonable argument can be made at the university level that the effect on the top half of the class has more value to society than the effect on the bottom half of the class. Also, there are other places students can get the education that they missed earlier if they are not ready for a course, usually at a much lower cost.

        I favor a course design that checks for understanding of prerequisite material early in the course, so that students who don’t have the proper preparation can seek other courses that will teach them what they need.

        Of course, a pedagogical technique that helps across of the spectrum of prior education is much more likely to be widely adopted than one that focuses on just reducing the failure rate. You’ll have a much easier time selling an approach if you can show that it benefits the 80% of the students in the middle.


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