From ‘dumb teaching’ to ‘smart teaching’

Everyone seems to be saying it: “there’s too much content to get through”. So what are we doing to address the problem?

I recall a number of conversations related to this over the years. I was talking to a ‘rookie’ lecturer a few years ago who told me he had to teach ‘the whole of cell biology in 45 minutes’. To which I replied, ‘is that possible?’. He replied, ‘no, of course not!’. So I asked him what he was going to do, and he said, ‘try anyway – what else can I do?’. So we have a lecturer here attempting what he knows to be impossible. This seems like very ‘dumb teaching’.

A similar conversation with a group of medics went something like this:

Q. “How long was a medical degree 50 years ago?”

A. “Five years”

Q. “Have there been any medical advances in the past fifty years? Any research? Any new treatments etc.?”

A. “Yes, of course. Lots. There are thousands of journal papers and books full of new information”.

Q. “So how long is a medical degree today?”

A. “Five years”

It is evident that all this information cannot be transmitted within the same magical five year time-frame. There has to be another way. We need to stop ‘carpet bombing’ classes with content and start using ‘laser-guided’ content that get to the heart if the issue of student learning.

To make a research analogy: imagine you wanted to gain an understanding of the Asian perspective on higher education. One way would be to plan to interview every person in China. That’d be dumb, and no researcher would even think of attempting it. A smarter method would be found to make the task possible.

So might threshold concepts provide a long term, smart solution? This is certainly not a quick fix – I don’t think there are any in teaching. But in the long term it could revolutionize teaching and help to make the curriculum more streamlined. That would be really ‘smart teaching’. So what’s the catch?

Well, can you tell me what the ‘threshold concepts’ are within your discipline, and in which order they should appear in the curriculum? Not an easy question, but surely one worth investigating. It requires subject expertise to be conceived on a whole new level, where experts are explicit about their joined-up thinking and where the structure of the curriculum mirrors the structure of the discipline. The good news – we need to focus on our own disciplines (the bit we like about or job) and imagine the student perspective. That is something that university academics should be able to do.

There is a literature to help with this, even arranged by subject to help you navigate your way through it: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html

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