More Reflections on Fear of Risktaking

A couple of weeks ago, I contributed to a discussion of why it’s so hard for teachers to take the risk to change their way of teaching. Barbara Ganley just provided her own very thoughtful contribution to this subject.

Barbara references a more in-depth study on this topic by Linda C. Hodges. Among the points Linda made were these:

We fear losing content “coverage”. This principle is usually citied first and foremost when faculty confront nontraditional pedagogical choices. The tyranny of content coverage is especially acute in certain disciplines that have a recognized body of information on which subsequent courses build, for example, the sciences and engineering. Our illusion is that we tell students the information that we want them to know, students who are motivated will absorb it, and our obligation to the discipline has been met. Thus, the most readily recognized and accepted pedagogical choice is lecture. It’s hard to argue with this premise head-on because most professors themselves learned very well by the lecture method, and it does have its place as one option in our set of pedagogical tools.

We fear losing control. What do the more student-centered strategies all have in common? They all represent shifts in the nature of authority in the classroom. They require us to move away from the idea that information may be transferred intact from expert to novice. Instead, they ask us to move toward the model of the student as self-teacher, recognizing that knowledge is of necessity constructed in the mind of the learners as they seek to reconcile new knowledge with mental models they’ve built based on former experience.

Research in cognitive science may currently be interpreted as validating the view that knowledge is constructed, not simply absorbed, yet for many of us this theory is not necessarily readily accepted. We need to believe that we can control the development of students’ ideas through our eloquent prose and detailed explanations; otherwise, it’s hard to know our role in the classroom.

Barbara points out in the context of her own teaching:

I do not believe that classroom blogs are more time-consuming than any other effective teaching approach–once you know what you’re doing with them. And that’s the problem–new approaches take more time initially, and are risky because we’ll make mistakes along the way. We have to look closely at the FEAR factor and find ways to help our co-horts and ourselves dare to move into teaching & learning as a collective intelligence activity.

Chris Dede makes a similar point:

Some of these shifts are controversial for many faculty; all involve “unlearning” almost unconscious beliefs, assumptions, and values about the nature of teaching, learning, and the academy. Professional development that requires unlearning necessitates high levels of emotional/social support in addition to mastering the intellectual/technical dimensions involved.

What’s the next step? This situation reminds me of what economists call a “market failure,” where individuals operating on their own are stuck in a less than optimal equilibrium. What we need is a collective decision to make a change and provision of sufficient resources to make it happen.

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1 Response to More Reflections on Fear of Risktaking

  1. Gardner says:

    If there’s a market failure, part of it is due to an attempt to scale education along industrial lines, and part of it is a refusal to engage with true cognitive diversity. We could start by fostering a better (or even any) dialogue between the sciences and the humanities. We could continue by examining our own assumptions with both generosity and rigor. Groupthink is the largest problem in that latter area, in my view.

    That collective decision needs cognitive diversity and leadership that encourages productive dissent. Surowiecki is pretty persuasive along these lines.

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