Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Research productivity and teaching quality: No correlation!

There's a good bit I agree with (and a bit I disagree with strenuously) in this piece by Edward O'Neill. O'Neill takes up an issue we've engaged at ISW in the past: is it possible, from a pedagogical perspective at least, to know too much about one's subject — can expertise make you a worse teacher?

O'Neill notes there's some evidence for an affirmative answer, but overall, if knowledge is measured by research productivity (which I concede is a questionable assumption), there appears to be no correlation between subject knowledge and teaching effectiveness. O'Neill notes that this finding upends some central assumptions about higher education: 

But we don't want to consider that a good scholar is not necessarily an effective teacher. We don't want to think about this, since the whole idea of higher ed as we know it today largely rests on the assumption that good scholars are at least capable of teaching, if not proficient at it.

O'Neill has a diagnosis for this expertise-teaching gap: Intellectual mastery of a subject is abstract and theoretical, whereas teaching is a practical and concrete art. And there's no reason to expect that the former will produce the latter. Furthermore, O'Neill notes that experts tend to focus on what we might call the foreground of learning, the explicit steps one takes late in the learning process, while not attending to the background of learning, the easy-to-overlook habits and aptitudes that make learning possible:
Students need to own the book before they open it, know the room number before they can show up, know where the test is being given before they can pass it. You may counter: but those are trivial pre-requisites, not the "core of learning." And I say: trivial things matter when you do them poorly, and further, there are aspects of practice which are non-trivial and which the theoretically-minded tend not to notice.
To O'Neill's mind, teaching is better modeled on cooking than chemistry, a "practical art" in which excellence is acquired slowly and in stages. I don't disagree with this, though O'Neill doesn't give the role of theory in teaching a fair shake. Teaching, he warns, is not "the application of a theory." Well no, if one has in mind a crudely mechanical, one-size-fits-all application that takes no account of the subject being taught, features of learners, etc. But I feel confident that knowing how people learn, how students study, and so on, makes us better teachers.


  1. I couldn't agree more with the post Michael. I recently ran a teaching workshop on this very idea--breaking up the tasks we want students to develop and being explicit, when teaching, about the steps that we often overlook. I think we too often rely on modeling as a style of teaching instead of fostering guided practice, because I think to encourage guided practice we need to really break up what we do so naturally into practical steps that we can target. I have come to think of teaching philosophy like teaching a sport. You are not going to be able to teach someone to swim by just swimming really well in front of them or explaining the mechanics of swimming very clearly, you have to give them drills to practice different parts of their stroke and give them very specific and targeted feedback.

  2. I was just thinking about this yesterday, how some research projects I've worked on this summer have already improved my teaching this year, in terms of how some issues have been presented and explained. These research projects, however, are also geared toward a general audience, in addition to philosophers, so that goal results in a more accessible presentation. I suppose the more someone is able to tailor the presentation of his or her research so that a general audience can, hopefully, follow what they're up to and why, that type of research has a greater potential for positively influencing teaching.


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