Blue pants on Tuesday

Blue pants on Tuesday

In this throwback post from 2015 that I re-installed here last week, I made the claim that

...knowing what we know now about teaching and learning, that the use of active learning in the classroom is an ethical issue and not an academic freedom issue.

What I mean is that active learning, and the choice to use it or not use it in our teaching, is primarily an ethical issue, and that one shouldn't hide behind academic freedom to justify the avoidance of pedagogical tools that are clearly more beneficial to students and privilege others that are not as beneficial, according to science. Quote often, university faculty will use "academic freedom" as cover to engage in laziness, self-preservation, or a superiority complex; or to avoid putting themselves in (what they perceive to be) professional harm's way.

But of course there is some role that academic freedom does play in choosing to orient our teaching toward active learning, or not. The very fact that this is a choice tells us so.

During my sabbatical at Steelcase, I engaged in many hours of conversation with Steelcase people about active learning. My role there was, at least partially, to help them understand both the research and the everyday practice of active learning, from the standpoint of an actual faculty member. Early on, one of the people on the business side of the company asked me a question I'll never forget:

If active learning is so great, why doesn't your dean or president just make people use it?

From the corporate standpoint, this is a fair and even obvious question. If Steelcase CEO Jim Kean decided one day that wearing blue pants on Tuesdays was objectively good for the company, then he would simply hand down an edict that all employees should wear blue pants on Tuesdays. And if you showed up for work without blue pants on the following Tuesday, you'd be packing your desk on Wednesday morning. Does the dean of the college or the president of the university not have similar power?

Well... yes and no, I explained. There's this little thing we call "academic freedom" in higher education that says that faculty should have the freedom to conduct their professional activities in ways, and in areas, that they see fit through the exercise of their own consciences and professional judgement. And yes, it sometimes kind of sucks, because it allows faculty to do teaching or research that is of questionable quality, or usefulness to our students. But it's the foundation of our culture, and a blue-pants-on-Tuesday style edict about active learning from on high, even if it's best for students, is not How We Do Things.

Having the dean or president lay down the law about active learning is also a bad idea because while that dean or president may have a good handle on how students learn and what's best for students in the classroom – and so people like me would be very happy to see an edict – the next dean or president might be exactly the opposite, and declare that all faculty must get away from this hippie nonsense of active learning and return to the lecture format that has stood the test of time (and allows us to deliver instruction at scale). Then the next dean would flip it back, and so on ad infinitum, and we end up with a complete loss of faculty governance, which is also How We Do Things. (Compare with our current US president nullifying all of Trump's executive orders with his own, which will be nullified by the next opposite-party president, etc. etc.)

So we don't declare blue pants on Tuesdays in higher education. Instead (I continued to explain) in higher education, everything has to be done by consensus. Little did I realize how true that statement was at the time, a year prior to my becoming Assistant Chair and then Chair of the Math Department. As Chair, you have no executive power at all; I sometimes felt that if I walked into a faculty meeting and stated that the Earth revolves around the Sun, somebody would complain that faculty weren't consulted first.

Therefore the way you go about change – any change, especially a wide adoption of active learning – is to build a case (based on data, and based on anecdotes because both have equal power to convince, no matter what individuals may say), understand the personalities involved in the decision, and help each people come to see in their own way and at their own pace that the change is for the best, for them and for students. If you have good people, then convincing them that the change is best for students is often enough.

When it comes to adopting active learning, the following also help:

  • Calibrating incentives (merit raises, tenure, promotion, etc.) to be tied to good use of active learning. In my work with faculty at other institutions, by far the most common item on their wish list is to have salary, promotion, and tenure dependent on the effective use of evidence-based pedagogies. I'm lucky: In my department, one's salary bump (assuming there's money for that) and progress toward promotion and tenure is specifically tied to the effective use of active learning. If you're in my department and doing nothing but what Derek Bruff calls continuous exposition (i.e. all lecture, all the time) then even if your student perception data are positive, there will be questions. Others are not so fortunate, and they are dependent on those student data almost entirely. Please note, simply giving out teaching awards at the end of the year for the "best" instructors is not nearly enough and might be counterproductive. If you want to really recognize good teaching, build it into the core of how faculty are compensated.
  • Courageous administrators. I wrote about this here, to say that sometimes you're in a position where you don't just need courage, you need cover from somebody in authority to give you the space to use active learning if it's possible doing so could extract a cost. And of course administrators – department chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents – can lead in this direction by recalibrating the salary/tenure/promotion structures to normalize active learning and make it an expectation without a "blue pants on Tuesday" declaration.
  • Having systems in place to make adoption of active learning simple and scalable. The salary/tenure/promotion structures are one category of this kind of system. Another category is the kind promulgated by Centers for Teaching and Learning on campus (whatever yours may be called, if you have one). CTL's can, and should, be to teaching what the IT department is for faculty computing — a center for information and support, where a faculty member can talk to a human being for help and ideas when implementing something. CTL's can also provide systems for professional development (which can tie into salary/tenure/promotion incentives), systems for connecting people with resources, and systems for connecting people with other people.

That last might be the most important. Very little real change happens from the top-down direction. It happens bottom-up, and also from the inside out. Robust communities of practice — small, active cohorts of faculty empowered and committed to working together to enact change — are the main drivers of active learning and any other positive change in higher ed, and always have been. CTL's can take the lead in building, sustaining, and connecting these communities, and we can all support them in our own ways.

If we do all these things, then academic freedom will be an engine for positive change and not just a code phrase for "leave me alone".

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.