During a national committee meeting I was chairing a few years ago, I was advocating for an initiative to get more physicists engaged with middle school students and teachers in person through classroom visits and other events. A committee colleague vehemently opposed the idea, dismissing it as a “little plan” (as in “Make no little plans”) and arguing that we should instead focus on impersonally distributing instructional materials produced by our society to thousands of middle school classrooms. Then he conceded that what was at the core of his opposition to the idea of getting more physicists personally into middle school classrooms was that he didn’t feel he had the interpersonal skills necessary to succeed in such a setting. If he couldn’t do it well, he didn’t want our organization to back a such a plan. Since this colleague was much more influential and visible in the organization than I was, I lost. Badly.
There is a lesson in this episode for the frustrating decades-long effort to reform college science and math teaching. At least at research universities, we don’t hire professors for their ability to comfortably engage one-on-one with 19-year-olds. The traditional lecture model provides a workaround for the problem that some professors lack confidence in their ability to conduct personal conversations with post-adolescents. With 200 students in the lecture hall distributed at distances from 20 to 80 feet away, the lecturer is released from the responsibility for the difficult task of building relationships with every student. Perhaps the lecturer makes eye contact with ten or fifteen students in the front rows periodically. But as for the rest? The tacit compact between the professor and most students not to violate each other’s spaces maintains a sense of order.
If a professor lacks the confidence or the skills to engage students in a personally challenging environment like SCALE-UP, then perhaps that professor shouldn’t be teaching SCALE-UP. That is a management decision for the department chair. But it would be irresponsible for that professor to oppose SCALE-UP altogether, simply because she or he wouldn’t be good at it. Nevertheless, there is still widespread faculty opposition to teaching models that require instructors to engage every student one-on-one – in part because of the if-I-can’t-do-it-then-nobody-should mentality.
For college instructors who do have the gift of building personal relationships with the broad population of students, the opposition to one-on-one teaching models like SCALE-UP is much more puzzling. The evidence for dramatically improved learning gains and improvements in “non-cognitive” skills due to SCALE-UP and other interactive engagement pedagogies is now decades old. If there is something seductive about standing on a stage performing for a captive audience of 200 students, I never experienced it. Then again, I am an odd duck. Certainly some of my colleagues seem to revel in that setting. Maybe that’s why they are unwilling to give it up.