In a number of unrelated conversations I have witnessed in recent weeks, the idea of ‘doing less better’ has emerged. In the context of classroom practice, this was reworded by one scholar as “less content, more engagement”. This seems to sum up a number of ideas that have run through posts in this blog as well as appearing in various research papers over recent years.
I have also observed that many university teachers plan to cover less and less content during a lecture as they gain experience. Whilst this is not universal (I am still aware of experienced teachers who race through PowerPoint slides to cover the maximum amount of content in an hour), it seems that when teachers become at ease with their role, they are less anxious about content, and more concerned with student understanding.
But some colleagues never seem to achieve this level of ‘inner peace’ and confidence in their teaching to buck the trend and stop burying their students under mountains of content. Perhaps because some of them are more concerned with their research profile than their teaching?
However, the “cover-as-much-as-possible-brigade” (whether large or small) appear to have undue influence over younger colleagues who are struggling to find their place in academia. Whilst faculty developers encourage novice teachers to engage with their students and develop active learning in their classes, there is often an invisible pressure to do the opposite. A number of novice teachers I have mentored over the years have commented that their senior departmental colleagues provided nothing but a wet blanket to dampen down any enthusiasm they might have for innovation in teaching. The idea still persists in some corners that you just get the teaching done as efficiently as possible to give you space for the research.
Many younger university teachers are struggling to gain recognition within their disciplinary areas, and to go against the local trend is a courageous path to tread. Working outside the consensus is not a good place to be as a junior member of department. Some colleagues think that perhaps they will question the cultural norms once they have established themselves and have the personal and professional credibility to challenge the academic norms. In practice, of course, this rarely happens. If success is achieved through going with the flow, why then make your life difficult and try swimming upstream?
In risk-averse university environments, most institutions appear reluctant to place innovators in positions of power and influence. A ‘safe pair of hands’ is usually the preferred option. I wonder how many Nobel laureates have been described as ‘a safe pair of hands’?