Photo, page 18: Undergraduates at the University of British Columbia in the 1950s.
Their attire may be more conservative than today, but the lecture hall format
remains the same.
Photo, page 18 : Étudiants au premier cycle à l’Université de la Colombie-Britannique
dans les années 1950. Leurs vêtements n’ont rien à voir avec ce que portent les étudiants
d’aujourd’hui, mais le cours est donné de la même façon.
ext spring will bring university leaders together for a workshop on undergraduate education in Canadian universities,
courtesy of the Association of Universities and Colleges of
Canada*. Such a meeting is welcome, overdue and potentially
transformative. Its success, though, will depend upon our
managing to escape from the essentially nostalgic mindset that
has hampered real pedagogical progress in our institutions
for at least the last decade. We have been incapacitated by a
witches’ brew whose ingredients are familiar to all – escalating
costs, declining public investment, rising enrolments, proportionately declining faculty complements, and so on – yet
we have failed to heed the advice we would normally give our students in
such circumstances: to reorient ourselves to our goals and explore alternative or even radically different ways to approach them.
Universities have typically responded to resource pressures with the
simple expedient of cost reduction on the input side of the educational
equation. Thus we have seen the proliferation of sessional contracts and
ballooning class sizes while the prevailing learning model – the “teaching
technology” model – has remained largely frozen. In this model (as in the
famous Figuier depiction of Aristotle instructing Alexander the Great),
the knowledge expert (the professor) tells the novice (the student) about
his discipline. The former does the teaching, the latter does the learning,
and, as the context for this encounter has worsened under pressure of
declining resources, it is questionable whether either does so effectively.
Even in the best circumstances this approach trivializes the role of the
student and exaggerates the professing function in the learning process.
The teaching technology model brings to mind some old industrial processes, before the discovery of catalysts, in which a huge amount of fossil fuel
was consumed to provide the activation energy for chemical reactions.
It may be that some students emerge from this process able to solve
problems, communicate effectively and interact meaningfully, but that
outcome is not inevitable or even likely. This has been noted many times
before, but even so, recent attempts to address the resource crisis in
higher education have failed to move far enough beyond the model of
20 / www.universityaffairs.ca /January 2011
a teacher addressing a room of essentially passive students: witness the
very problematic differentiation proposed in Academic Transformation: The
Forces Reshaping Higher Education in Ontario (Queen’s Policy Studies Series,
2009) between “research” and “teaching” institutions. The discourse is
still lamentably focused on maximizing inputs, on feeding as many people as possible from the same basket of bread. But let’s be serious: none
of us are miracle-workers, and when there are 5,000 minds to feed it is
foolhardy to proceed as if there were five. We need to seek new and better
ways to satisfy the hunger of our students.
What is required is a radical re-conceptualizing of the teaching
and learning process, where the goal becomes “helping students learn”
rather than “teaching.” We need to lift ourselves above the instructor-instructed dialectic, and above that equally factitious binary of teaching
and research. Were we to see the terms in each dialectic as complementary rather than oppositional, then we could imagine a wider, possibly
infinite, range of models for learning. We could craft processes of study
better suited to the outcomes sought by students, more efficient and more
encompassing in the deployment of resources, and less vulnerable to
changes in our material circumstances.
When, bearing in mind the analogy of the catalyst, we focus on student learning and think of teaching as helping students learn, then a
number of pedagogical and curricular design options become conceivable. “Course preparation” changes from an exercise in content selection
and sequencing to a pedagogical design problem in which the ultimate
objective is explicitly described. We can be much more creative and can
choose among many more variables. The traditional lecture course is no
longer the only model we consider. The professor is not the only person
responsible for helping the student learn. Others can be involved, including
the students themselves, their peers, community members, community
organizations, societies and institutions. We, the teachers, become more
concerned with what the students are actually doing. We begin to think
more broadly about the kinds of situations in which students learn. For
example, other cultures and environments become a resource for helping
students learn when we take part in international internships. The challenges of professional practice or the problems of certain social groups
become opportunities to engage in problem-based or service learning.
*Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada Workshop on Canadian University
Undergraduate education, March 6-8, 2011, Halifax. The workshop is designed exclusively
for university presidents and vice-presidents, academic, who are encouraged to attend
as a team and to bring a student to the dialogue.