The Future of Teaching


Earlier, I issued a plea for help with a survey (here and here), and yesterday, I posted on “Ivory Tower Heresies.” Here’s an update. 


First, some facts. College tuition and fees have risen astronomically in the last decades. As Catherine Rampell has written on the Economix blog at The New York Times: “College tuition and fees today are 559 percent of their cost in 1985. In other words, they have nearly sextupled (while consumer prices have roughly doubled).”


Source: NYT, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Source: NYT, Bureau of Labor Statistics


But don’t get the impression that those increases are driven primarily by efforts to improve instruction:




The same picture — that is, a picture of how funds are being diverted to cover non-instructional expenses — emerges when we look at how much faculty compensation has lagged (versus increases in tuition) since 1990:




In addition to underwriting an arms race of semi-professional athletic teams and swanky facilities,




a portion of that increase in tuition and fees has paid for expansion of the administrative ranks at colleges and universities:




No surprise, then, that despite record numbers of applications to brand-name schools like Stanford and Harvard (a phenomenon, I suspect, that is itself evidence of the public’s growing perception that higher education, as it exists today, may not be worth the financial sacrifices families are making),


Source: Stanford Alumni Magazine
Source: Stanford Alumni Magazine


there are signs that the game is up:


Source: MIT Technology Review, Institute of Education Sciences and Pew Research Center
Source: MIT Technology Review, Institute of Education Sciences and Pew Research Center


Now suppose you are a parent of a college-age child. To help fund her education at some place that is not a brand-name school, you’re considering a second mortgage on your house. Or running up credit-card debt. Or co-signing on a bank loan. And then I tell you that you can choose one of the following:


  1. Pay $30,000 each year to have your daughter be one of 50 students attending lectures by Jim Abbot (a so-called contingent instructor being paid, say, $3,200 to teach the course), who has cribbed the notes for his rather boring lectures from books by Roman history gurus at places like Stanford and Oxford; or
  2. Pay $10,000 each year to have your daughter stream on her laptop lectures by Roman history gurus at Stanford and Oxford, while full-time college employee Jim Abbot leads small-group discussions, provides tutoring in study skills, grades papers, advises on course of study, leads the occasional field trip, etc.


Is option #2 coming? No, versions of it are already here.


For me one pressing question is, what happens to the traditional classroom at schools that do not have $15 billion endowments? And that’s why I find the following table  fascinating. It shows one breakdown of the results from my survey on teaching and learning.


I asked respondents to watch a short film clip from Stand and Deliver.  I then presented 40 descriptors of good teaching, which I devised based on reading that I have been doing as well as my own experiences in the classroom. For each, you were asked to indicate whether you saw evidence of it in the film. Next, I asked you to recall one of your own best or most memorable learning experiences. Again, I presented those 40 descriptors, and you were asked this time to deem each important or unimportant to that particular learning experience.


In the following, “own” is the weighted average (0-5) for responses to the second question, “film” to the first question. The difference between the first and the second is also indicated.



Type Own Film Diff Descriptor
E 4.73 4.63 +10 T knows subject
I 4.54 4.67 -13 T is enthusiastic, even passionate
E 4.52 4.25 +27 T explains and clarifies complex ideas
E 4.48 4.38 +10 T is easy to understand, communicates well
I 4.38 4.62 -24 T seems to take teaching seriously
E 4.36 4.26 +10 T is well-prepared and organized
I 4.34 3.66 +32 T respects S
E 4.31 4.35 -04 T understands how S learn
I 4.27 4.32 -05 T comes off as genuine, not fake, seems “real”
E 4.24 4.41 -17 T is variously skillful, e.g. impart knowledge, manage interpersonal dynamics
I 4.24 4.14 +10 T helps S have “aha!” moments that change the way they think
I 4.23 4.55 -32 T challenges S
I 4.22 4.51 -29 T can improvise, go “off script” when needed
I 4.18 4.32 -14 T seems to care about S
E 4.17 3.64 +52 T is fair
E 4.13 3.30 +83 T makes S feels safe in his/her classroom
E 4.12 4.09 +3 T addresses relevance or interest of subject
E 4.11 4.15 -4 T helps S feel sense of achievement
E 4.1 3.63 +47 T checks whether S are actually learning
E 4.09 4.19 -10 T teaches concept and then asks S to apply
I 4.08 4.01 +7 T shows how knowledge is interconnected
E 4.06 4.08 -2 T helps S learn how to learn
E 4.03 3.84 +19 T treats S as individuals
I 4.03 4.11 -8 T demands respect for the learning process
E 4 4.14 -14 T builds on S’s existing knowledge
I 4 4.14 -14 T seeks to build S’s confidence
E 3.97 4.49 -52 T uses analogies, role play, illustrations
E 3.96 4.20 -24 T has ways to help S remember what they are learning
I 3.94 3.64 +30 T introduces real and intriguing problems
E 3.87 3.99 -12 T focuses more on S’s learning than on what s/he is teaching
I 3.87 3.67 +20 T treats S as partners in a quest for knowledge
I 3.86 4.25 -39 T puts ideas in compelling context, e.g., through stories
I 3.84 4.72 -88 T takes risks in the classroom
I 3.7 4.18 -48 T uses humor, e.g., can laugh at him-/herself
E 3.62 3.10 +52 T’s teaching has variety, e.g., lecture, discussion, small groups, etc.
I 3.61 4.06 -45 T creates group spirit or sense of community
E 3.58 3.40 +18 When T evaluates S, s/he focuses on what they have actually “covered”
I 3.57 3.64 -7 T is willing for S to fail as a step to learning
I 3.52 3.75 -23 T helps S understand themselves
I 3.47 3.51 -4 T promotes interaction and/or collaboration


You’re curious about “E” and “I.” The former is for “effective” and the latter for “inspirational.” I have identified 20 of the items as descriptive of (merely) effective teaching, another 20 relevant to what I am calling “inspirational” (or possibly “transformative”) teaching.


More later on the differences between those two categories (but you have “Ivory Tower Heresies” as a preliminary guide) and including all the caveats you’d expect (above all, the fact that this does not come close to being a scientific study). For the moment, let’s say that on my construction, a computer can or will be able to teach a person effectively, but only a human being can teach in such a way as to inspire another human being.


You see where I’m headed with this. Now, what’s interesting is the suggestion that if we ask people what they want, they say they want, in effect, the computer. You can see that eight (8) of the ten (10) lowest-ranked descriptors are categorized by me as “inspirational.” Comparatively speaking, your best experience as a student was not one in which collaborating with others was important. Not one in which you felt that your teacher was taking risks. Not one in which you sensed that you were part of a company of people seeking the truth. Not one in which you felt that you might fail at any moment. Not one as a consequence of which you came to understood more about yourself.


The averages of the averages: 4.1225 for effective teaching, 3.9945 for inspirational teaching. Also, note that on the effective descriptors, your own best learning experience was +9.6 versus the film. On the inspirational descriptors? -14.7.


So, if I have this right, and it’s all preliminary, you’d prefer Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha in Her to Edward James Olmos’s character in Stand and Deliver. (Hey, me, too!)


A different question, though, is this:


What do you need?


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