Like many, O'Hare laments the lack of serious, formal training for faculty about how to teach, as well as "the complete absence of a quality assurance program for teaching that anyone from industry (service or manufacturing) would recognize":
I’ve asked where it is again and again, and everyone – including the chair of the Committee on Courses of Instruction – says they don’t know. For research, we have a fairly good QA system with the equivalent of quality circles, collaboration, watching each other work and talking about it, peer feedback, and the other basics. But for teaching, where our political life hangs by a thread…well, there was a one-off program for about 40 faculty last spring on “how students learn”, and a seminar that twelve faculty a year can join...O' Hare senses an ambivalence amongst his colleagues about the task of teaching:
I sense a great deal of resistance to taking teaching seriously among most of my colleagues (though everyone asserts, on cue, that we care about teaching, and sometimes that we are very good at it). This resistance has two main sources. The first is subconscious. As we are mostly all aware that student course evaluations, useful and important as they are, are uncorrelated with learning, and they are all we get, we have never had evidence of a type we respect as scholars that we are any good at it, and we are as insecure about our abilities – especially abilities in a field with a strong affective component – as the next person. Seriously engaging with improving teaching is just scary; why would I start to play a game I may not be able to get any good at? ...I have less to say about the second issue, except to note that anything calling itself an educational institution is seriously off track if another responsibility (research) is so heavily incentivized as to crowd out education. As to the first: Yes, exactly. The way to encourage and reward quality teaching without freaking people out is to develop instruments that measure it in an equitable and (to the extent possible) accurate way. One of the baleful effects of student evaluations is that even the reliable ones, if that's all the evidence faculty are evaluated on, only tell us about the end product, and imperfectly at that. As analytical tools, they are often clumsy or obscure, and as evaluative metrics, they are easily tricked by contingent variables instructors cannot control.
The second is a correct perception that there is a production possibility frontier across teaching and research, and an incorrect perception that we are operating on it and therefore any gain in student learning will be at the cost of research productivity.
O'Hare notes that the cheapest way to improve teaching may be very simple: Watch someone else.
Here’s one example: break the profound isolation of the teaching profession (only a pathologist in a dark room with his microscope, or maybe a forest ranger in a watchtower, has as little day-to-day peer and partner support as we do). A typical course around here meets for fourteen weeks, twice a week, in plenary session with the prof. Let’s imagine two of those weeks, about six hours per semester, redirected from meeting with the students to visiting another prof’s class thrice, briefly writing up three things she’s doing well that (i) I should try to copy in my own course (ii) she should be aware of as effective practice, be proud of, and keep doing; and three things that would make the class sessions [even] more effective. I still have 90 minutes left: this might be a lunch meeting to schmoose about what everyone saw in these visits (maybe in groups of four rather than pairs). After a couple of years of this, given the minimal base of collaboration and mutual coaching we’re starting from – let me emphasize, we never see each other work and never talk about what we do in this area – I guarantee that student learning would increase by way more than the 14% lost from so-called ‘contact hours’.Of course, I'm saddened to hear that O'Hare's colleagues never talk about teaching! But surely he's spot on that one of the great oddities of our profession is just how little we know about how others fulfill their pedagogical responsibilities.