Choices as Constraints

In a recent conversation, Gardner and I talked about whether or not one can be open to genuine teaching innovation without considering new media. This is a different question from whether or not (some) technology is embodied in all teaching practices, which I believe is true. For this conversation, Gardner was specifically referring to the tools of Web 2.0. I think this question relates back to the panel discussion I moderated at the Faculty Academy this Spring. Why are faculty so resistant to incorporating new media in their teaching? Why are they so conservative to change in their teaching generally? And what was apparently of interest to Gardner, why am I not? Why I am open to trying new things?

One of the observations that we came up with is that most faculty seem to see choices as constraints. There is an issue of path dependence here: During the 1960s, there was a theory of business investment called “Putty-Clay.” The idea was simple: a business could build any size factory it wished—investment opportunities were malleable like putty. But once the decision was made, they became hard like clay. Once the investment was made, the firm had to work with the factory it had built, whether business increased or decreased. This is an example of path dependence. Where we are now, what our options are now, is based on our history. Decisions made in the past, limit our choices in the future. I could (perhaps) have become a physical therapist, but once I began graduate study in economics, that decision put me on a different path in life.

What does this suggest about teachers and change? I can only speak from my experience, which is, of course, subject to the fallacy of induction. Lecture notes are an example of path dependence. They are also a metaphor, I think, for our teaching in general. When I began teaching at UMW, I taught eight courses/six preps the first year. I had complete lecture notes for only one of those courses (Environmental Economics, which I had taught twice as a graduate student.) I also had partial notes for principles of micro and macro economics. (I had taught a one semester Intro to Economics course in graduate school.) That left three courses to develop from scratch, two of which I had never even taken as a student. Those first few years, course development was a real time sink, and by course development, I mean just putting together rough lecture notes. While I no longer teach some of those courses, the ones I do teach still reflect, at least in part, those original lecture notes. Putting those notes together took so much effort that I am reluctant to get rid of them. It’s like writing. Those lecture notes are part of my identity. Throwing them away would be like throwing away part of my self.

Over my career, I have revised my courses, sometimes very substantively. But why has it been so difficult to make the decision to do so? For a number of reasons: Because my old courses worked adequately. Because substantive rethinking of a course takes a huge amount of time and effort. Because throwing away my previous course is painful.

Gardner asked me some probing questions which revealed some interesting thoughts and which he urged me to blog about. That was the impetus for this post. I think many faculty see choices as constraints. Choices that they have made in the past become constraints on their future behavior. That’s the idea of path dependence again, but the thing is, this path dependence is not absolute. Just as businesses can decide over time to either expand or contract the size of their factory, so can faculty revisit their past choices. When looked at in this light, constraints become choices again. I think to a modest extent, that’s what I do.

Why am I willing to do this? Why am I not satisfied with the status quo of my courses? I’m not sure. One thing I know is that I’m regularly inspired by what I learn at workshops offered by our Writing Program, our Speaking Program, our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, and most recently by our First Year Seminar Program. I hear things at those events and find myself thinking: What a cool idea! I could use that to teach [insert course or topic]. I don’t feel that way about every idea I learn about. But I do about enough of them that I regularly have rich ideas about ways to tinker with my courses.

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4 Responses to Choices as Constraints

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  4. Isaac says:

    There is also the other side of path dependence which has little to do with the historical record of an _individual’s_ choices foreclosing on other opportunities; rather, it is a the result of network externalities reinforced by the _aggregate_ of individual choices across both time and space. Students, for instance, may have a hard time with professors who do not write up lecture notes since this format is ingrained – explicitly or not – in the structure of most of their courses. I suppose its possible that, on average, students take longer to adapt to a course that is not based in some way on the lecture format. There must then be losses in terms of the amount of content a professor can cover, since there will be substantial switching costs to the new method both for her (if this is her first time trying a different format, especially) and, subsequently, to the students. In fact, the students get a double whammy if it really is the professor’s first time trying this different format, since she will not yet have developed any specialized skills in using the new teaching method.

    So suppose the (perfect) academic world was comprised entirely of professors who wanted nothing more than to give their students the best education possible. Then they would have to make a very rational choice between two pedagogical paradigms on the basis of which one they felt would give students the most bang (read: learning) for their buck. Most would see their own inability to mitigate switching costs in moving from one method to the other. Most would see that these costs would be equally high for their colleagues. And most would see that students are potentially done a grave disservice should a) the experiment go awry or b) the students (for some reason) display a remarkable inability to adapt to the new method. For a very good reason, then, a professor may refuse to switch to the newer method. There has to be a certain willingness to risk the quality of education in the short-run in order to improve it in the long-run. Many professors may not be willing to take this risk.

    Thus, the lecture format is in part self-reinforcing, and has less to do with whether professors recognize the potential of a paradigm-shift and more to do with the high costs of participating in it – both to themselves AND to students. There has to be a certain willingness to see students as expendable guinea pigs. Students really don’t know any better about the quality of the content being delivered to them, and scientists of applied pedagogy have to justify their subjects’ occasional – potentially acute – negative reactions to experimental methods with the belief that thousands more will benefit. Curving the grades a little bit might provide succor, but a failed experiment is going to leave a gaping hole in a student’s education. Period.

    The potential disservice to students could really dissuade a lot of people.

    (Note: I recognize the counter argument here is that the lecture format itself is doing a disservice; my major assumption here is that on average there is a very high cognitive fixed investment in understanding and utilizing the lecture format on both sides of the learning exchange. As a consequence, traditional pedagogical methods (say, lectures), on average, create more educational value than alternative methods at this time.)

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