Can a world-class scholar be an effective college teacher? A response to Adam Grant’s NYT op-ed.

Adam Grant’s New York Times op-ed titled “Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach” is built on three fatally flawed premises. The first is the assumption that all teaching can and should be done using the traditional (and, at least in my field, discredited) lecture model. The second is that excellent teaching is defined to be the ability to deliver crystal clear explanations of difficult concepts – the Golden Lecture. The third is that accomplished scholars are somehow congenitally unable to adopt effective teaching practices.

Grant’s essay isn’t just amusingly erroneous. In fact, the piece is so damaging that it gives the whole enterprise of higher education a shove toward the precipice over which the human relationships that drive learning are disposed of and the students who most need those relationships to achieve are barred from the leadership fields of the 21st century.

I am not one of the star scholars that Grant was talking about. I publish a few nuclear physics papers per year (although I’m now over 100 for my career) and by that measure I am either average or below for my physics department.

Fifteen years ago, I was an award-winning lecturer. When the Provost introduced me during that time at a ceremony where I received my University Teaching Award, he cited a lecture stunt for which I was widely known that involved dumping a bucket of water over my head in class (For experts: Swinging a bucket of water in a vertical circle to illustrate centripetal acceleration, and then stopping the bucket over my head presumably to demonstrate that the gravitational force was still in play). I was getting great teacher evaluation scores. But I realized that I was delivering my award-winning lectures while thinking about lunch. And most of my students weren’t learning crap.

About 2005, I began a campaign with several colleagues to start a program of physics instruction at FSU using the SCALE-UP model developed at North Carolina State University. The SCALE-UP model, like other “interactive engagement” pedagogies, drives learning through hands-on lab and problem-solving exercises performed in collaborative groups and – when necessary – difficult Socratic dialogues. Face-to-face social interactions are the secret sauce. Lecturing plays little or no role. The university’s central administration agreed to devote a medium-sized room in a new classroom building then being planned to a 72-seat SCALE-UP room. Several of us traveled to the University of Central Florida to learn the basics of teaching in the SCALE-UP format from then-Assistant Professor Jeff Saul, who had implemented the model there. We began teaching in the SCALE-UP format under the local brand name “Studio Physics” in 2008.

Class Panorama

The first SCALE-UP/Studio classroom constructed at FSU (in 2008).  We can no longer teach Studio Physics classes in this room because of competition for it from other academic units.

Since 2008, we’ve received hundreds of thousands of dollars of support in the form of lab equipment, nearly all from several Deans of the College of Arts and Sciences. Two new SCALE-UP rooms have been “built” (through renovations of other outdated facilities), although as of this semester we’ve lost access to the original SCALE-UP room opened in 2008 – because other departments find the classroom architecture useful as well and compete with us for time slots. We teach about 250 students per semester (about another 1,000 per semester still choose to take their introductory physics courses in the lecture format). We measure learning gains every semester. On several topics, namely Newtonian mechanics and DC circuits, our learning gains are world-class (and double what they are in traditional lecture classes). For several other topics, our testing shows that we have more challenges to address to achieve the learning results we want. A team of two student researchers – one a graduate student and the other an undergraduate – are taking a careful look at the obstacles students are encountering in our classroom learning about mechanical energy, where I’ve had problems. The first results were presented in the form of an undergraduate Honors Thesis this summer (by a new graduate who is now teaching physics at Orange County’s Apopka High School) and we are making adjustments in the way we are teaching that topic this fall in response to the results.

There are headwinds, like there are with anything worthwhile. My student teaching evaluations (that is, the evaluations students write about my teaching at the end of the semester) are not stellar and are sometimes really rough. To get a taste, check out my Rate My Professors page. In the decade-long history of our Studio Physics Program, none of the professors working in the program has been nominated for a University Teaching Award, even though our program is the university’s leading initiative for evidence-based teaching. I have had staff members who provide academic advice to students in other departments tell me they discourage students from taking the studio version of physics classes. Why? They believe their students find the traditional lecture format more comfortable. Apparently comfort trumps learning.

Which brings us back to Adam Grant’s op-ed and his belief in the Golden Lecture. The Director of FSU’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Leslie Richardson, used a phrase in one of her periodic e-mails to faculty that I found amusing and apt – “fluency illusion”.  Fluency illusion is the warm and fuzzy feeling that a student has after a Golden Lecture convinces the student that she or he really understands something.  The cure for fluency illusion is having a student actually try to do something with the understanding presumably gained through the Golden Lecture.  The primary indication that a student is being cured of the fluency illusion is a verbal assertion by the student that she or he “really understands the material” but that the task placed before the student is either “unfair” or “irrelevant”.

The Golden Lecture is the academic drug of the masses.  Fluency illusion is the euphoria a Golden Lecture induces.

golden lecture

A Golden Lecture in progress

Speaking of the masses: If the Golden Lecture is really the most effective possible tool for teaching and learning, then the best thing we can do for our students is to find the most Golden of every Golden Lecturer in the known universe on every topic or subtopic, record the Golden Lecture, and put it on a website somewhere so that every student can access it for free. Then we can save every payer of tuition and taxes a ton of money by laying ourselves off. (Oh wait, that process has already begun…)

So let’s say the reader has bought into my assertion that teaching and learning is most effectively done through hands-on exercises in collaborative groups and through one-on-one or one-on-few conversations with students. That brings us back to the original question posed by Adam Grant: Can world-class scholars teach well? But the question doesn’t boil down to whether a world-class scholar can give a slick Golden Lecture. Instead, the question is whether a world-class scholar can have a patient yet intense one-on-one exchange about a subject (in my case, physics) with a stressed post-adolescent who is trying to learn something that she or he probably finds difficult and which may seem to pose a serious obstacle to her or his career dream.

The answer is the same as it would be if you substituted the more general noun “person” for “world-class scholar” – sometimes. When we recruit a new physics professor for our department, we are looking for an individual who will be an international leader in research in a subfield of physics. “Really skilled at personal interactions with stressed post-adolescents” is not in the text of our job ads (which are posted in locations like Physics Today). My experience is that the percentage of world-class physicists who are skilled in the challenging personal interactions necessary to be an effective teacher (a REALLY effective teacher – not just a teacher who induces a really great case of fluency illusion) is about the same as the corresponding percentage among the general population.

To an extent, the skills necessary to be successful in interactive learning environments like our Studio Physics classrooms can be learned (after all, I learned them). But learning them is neither easy nor comfortable, and for an individual who is fighting for a position of international research leadership in a subfield of physics (as our policy-makers say they want) to commit the time and emotional energy to learning these skills is a serious sacrifice indeed. In fact, we pretty much lock pre-tenure faculty members out of the Studio Physics Program. We want their emotional energy focused on their research. And there is one other reason: Their tenure applications will be judged in part on their student evaluations of teaching. We steer our young faculty members into teaching assignments in which students almost always reward instructors with lovely evaluations – generally low-level traditional lecture classes where students expect to be fed Golden Lectures so they can experience the warm euphoric feeling of fluency illusion.

Adam Grant is an elder in the Cult of the Golden Lecture. His position of leadership in that cult has led him to ask the wrong questions and reach the wrong conclusions.

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