Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Barrier assumptions

While working on my book on academic transformation, I've been looking back over a 40-year career engaged with innovation.  The news isn't all bad.  Islands of improvement have multiplied and some have grown to be quite large, even though great swaths of academic practice remain unchanged.

For the book, I've been noting assumptions that hold many of us back, especially when these assumptions reinforce barrier practices. Here are a few of the most important of these barrier assumptions:

1. Relying mainly on experts explaining things to students (for example, lectures, demonstrations, textbooks) works well enough.  Learning can't be improved by altering teaching. Students learn more or less because of their talents and problems.  Attempts to increase grades are almost always illusory and result in watering down the curriculum.
  • Counter-assumption: the vast weight of evidence supports the finding that  relying primarily on explaining things is not very effective, not an equal playing field for students, and not a very good use of anyone's time.  Changes in teaching can result in improvements in learning.
2. Faculty jobs are about working alone, especially where teaching is concerned. Reward systems reinforce working alone, with each instructor working alone to teach a course or section, having his or her own advisees, etc.
  •  Counter-assumption: Learning that results in lasting changes in student capabilities, perspectives and direction emerges from a constellation of experiences in many courses and experiences. In order to intentionally improve those graduation, faculty need to invest significant time and effort in working together, as a regular part of their responsibilities as teachers.
 3.  Any inquiry into how time, money and facilities are used by students, faculty and programs is a disguised and illegitimate ploy by the administration to restrict academic freedom and to fire people.
  • Counter-assumption: To improve learning requires rethinking the organization of academic work in smaller or larger ways (rather than adding new practices and expenses alongside the status quo).  This rethinking involves how people spend time and how the institution allocates resources.  Assuming that the starting point is that people can keep spending time and money as they have guarantees that the status quo remains the norm. (See myth #1)
4. Innovations are a completely new beginning (and a leap into the dark), especially technology-based innovations.  For example, research on libraries has no bearing on using the Web as a library.  Research done on the instructional software of the 1980s can't possibly suggest any useful insights in dealing with this year's adaptive tutoring systems. 
  • Counter-assumption: the most important determinants of student learning are what students do. Technologies - whether they are textbooks, computer software, classrooms, or learning management systems - exist to make it easier for students (and instructors) to do certain things.  Lecturing, textbooks, and streaming videos from the Khan Academy all offer students explanations of content. Therefore their potential and their limitations are likely to be similar.

In your experience, what barrier myths hinder our efforts to keep improving access, quality and affordability?