Future of Faculty Development: Cultivating Meaningful Experiences

What is the future of faculty development? Or, maybe we’re in the future because it’s always been this way and it won’t change?

Much of my thought is consumed with the question: How do faculty learn? By this I mean that faculty development is very complex because faculty bring to the learning context much more than students: more knowledge, more insight, more skills, and more baggage; or at least they think they do. For better or worse, students come to the learning context with a fairly engrained set of expectations, rules, structures, and understanding of long established power relationships. “I’ll do what I’m told” kind of attitude. Faculty also come to the faculty development context with expectations that are filtered through their existing roles, responsibilities, desires and perceived rights and capabilities. So, I enter all faculty development engagements with the idea that first we must expose and manage expectations.

Stephen Brookfield’s book, “Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question their Assumptions,” argues that one key dimension to thinking critically is identifying and evaluating our assumptions. This isn’t, of course, a new idea within teaching and learning contexts. John Bean’s book, “Engaging Ideas,” describes an approach to exposing assumptions about teaching and learning roles and responsibilities offering up a strategy where students write an essay beginning with the prompt: “The teacher’s job is…” They continue with a second prompt that reads: “The student’s job is…” For many years now, I have started a new semester with variations of this activity. For example, this semester my students worked in small groups of 2-3 and responded to the prompts on white boards. After we analyzed the concepts and assumptions embedded within their lists, I said: “Now, I want you to take all the responsibilities in the ‘teacher’s job’ column and put it on the student’s job. How does this shift your thinking and perceptions of teaching and learning now?”


The activity was designed to challenge student assumptions about what teaching and learning means. I wanted to begin to question the power and responsibility roles. I wanted them to begin to see that I want them to do the intellectual work that I do when designing courses, lessons, assignments, tests, etc. I have learned more teaching than I have ever learning sitting in a classroom desk. Why? Because I am the one doing all the intellectual work: lit reviews, questions, finding examples, organizing experiences, designing assessments, etc. Why not shift that to them? Not easy, I admit, but that’s my goal. What we learn well, we learn by doing! To reference Eduard Lindeman: Education as experience!

How does this relate to faculty development? Well, in the last ten years I’ve facilitated over 160 faculty development workshops, seminars, & courses. I like to think of them as facilitating experiences because we (all humans) learn by doing. To do this well, I have to help faculty identify, evaluate and possibly re-frame their expectations of what the day will hold. Last week I was working a cross-disciplinary group of college faculty in Texas. How can I craft experiences that helps all of them regardless of their discipline? The topic addressed practical methods for fostering critical thought on a typical day of class…and align it with their Quality Enhancement Plan for accreditation purposes. I’ve done this type of thing many times across this nation and internationally. What I did differently, though, was I asked them to complete the “Teacher’s job…/Student’s job…” activity. Interesting results.

I found that, like students, many of the words used for the instructor’s job were broad and relatively vague. For example, the teacher’s job is to inspire, motivate, and assess. Others were somewhat more specific: organize, provide examples, design assignments, develop rubrics. For the student’s job, words tended to be much more concrete on the whole. Descriptors like: come prepared, read, complete homework, come to class, submit work on time dominated the lists. A few floating concepts were consistent like study and communicate effectively. I challenged instructors to do the same thing I challenged my students to do: What would the classroom look like if your responsibilities were shifted to the students? What would you do differently? How would the classroom culture shift if at all? The reaction? If you’re still reading, then I suspect you’re interested.

For my students, they began to see that the class would be more challenging and engaged than other didactic environments. No real protests, but a few groans. The instructors, however, immediately began vocally providing numerous reasons why such a shift is impossible; not improbably, but impossible. Their comments were full of emotion, which I interpreted as ranging from anger to dismissal. My goal, then, was to make shift happen.

shift happens

Image source: http://www.shifthappens.us/free.html

How do you make shift happen? Well, you can’t force it. I argue that you have to provide experiences. Experiences to discover, challenge, explore, analyze, critique, contextualize, and feel. I can provide examples and hope that they can be generalized to one’s personal context. This is a common approach in faculty development and has merit. For example, Ken Bain published a book that sought out faculty stars, and I really like that book. Numerous universities position their faculty stars for greatest visibility particularly on open course sights. Do these professors show us a way? Do they chart us a path? Gardner Campbell terms them “faculty by which we can navigate.” Consequently, should we focus a bulk of our efforts on finding promising faculty who want to play and work with them? What’s the alternative? Do we continue to beat the same drum and the same tune for a limited audience?

It’s kind of funny. Even though I think faculty generally bring a more robust set of challenges to the learning context than do undergraduate students, I also think that the fundamental mechanisms for deep learning are the similar to students as well as the fundamental obstacles of poor motivation.

Show case and paradigm examples are necessary to help faculty see and imagine new possibilities to make shift happen. This isn’t enough though. I want to create challenging experiences based on exposing and assessing our assumptions about teaching and learning; experiences that provide challenging problems to solve; experiences that put us in a place to contextualize the pedagogical suggestions within our unique disciplines; experiences that promote connections and associative trails; and experiences that deeply engage our emotions.

So, what’s the future of faculty development? I think that we should practice what we preach: Move away from didacticism and toward cultivating deep learning through direct experiences. After all, I learned how to ride a bicycle by trying it, not listening to lecture about it first.

3 thoughts on “Future of Faculty Development: Cultivating Meaningful Experiences

  1. I was in a Skype call with a colleague at Northeastern U where I move in two weeks, and without having read this post, these issues surfaced. Timely and on target (as a good archer should be…)! I will be passing your post on to her!

  2. The instructors, however, immediately began vocally providing numerous reasons why such a shift is impossible; not improbably, but impossible. Their comments were full of emotion, which I interpreted as ranging from anger to dismissal. My goal, then, was to make shift happen.

    WOW, this is absolutely fascinating! I am so glad I found this post thanks to Connected Courses, and I will be reading your blog. Your contrasting experiments with students and faculty confirms something that has been my impression for many years, but which I have never been able to pinpoint so precisely. I just know that in my classes, the more and more control and responsibility I give to the students, the happier we all are: they are learning more, I enjoy my job more, everybody benefits. Decentering the class has been especially easy (and important!) for me, because I teach online… I no longer have to be the center of attention at the front of the room, all eyes staring at me. The students respond so positively to this new way of learning; it takes a week or two before they really see how different it is, but then it’s just lots of learning and lots of fun for the rest of the semester. With my colleagues, though, I have gotten nowhere. Naively, back around 2002, when I first started teaching online and finding these great gains when I redesigned my classes, I eagerly offered workshops to anyone who asked, and I was so surprised at the total pushback from faculty who said what I was doing was impossible, couldn’t work, etc. … even though I obviously knew that it was possible and I could see that it was working! Here we are over ten years later, and I’ve pretty much given up hope when it comes to colleagues, although my hopes for my students are bigger than ever. I try to document everything I do, and I share online abundantly (I’m documenting my online classes in a new project this semester: Anatomy of an Online Course), but I no longer expect to make any impact on all but a few colleagues, the ones who have already opened up their minds to a student-centered way of thinking. As for the rest, I haven’t the time or energy or skill to work through their anger and dismissal, just as you describe here. So, I repeat: What an absolutely fascinating post! I look forward to exploring other posts in your blog here. Thank you!!!

    1. Thanks Laura!

      I have been working with faculty for over ten years and across the disciplines. It’s amazing to me that despite the tendency to think of faculty as ideal learners, I think it’s more complex. They may be ideal within their academic specialty, but we are all humans, so we are all vulnerable to the same obstacles and barriers. It’s been my goal to make shift happen. I look forward to a continued discussion. I have not put such a fine point on it yet (intentionally), but I think this post is relevant to faculty learning as well. I should thank you for reaching out!

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