Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What Gladwell's Latest Suggests About Improving Teaching in Higher Education

I've been a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell since before The Tipping Point came out. Right now his new book, Outliers, is at the top of the bestseller lists. My wife got my copy before I had the chance to read it. So instead of going on about Outliers, I've been mulling over the implications of his latest New Yorker article, "Most Likely to Succeed: How Do We Hire When We Can't Tell Who's Right for the Job."

In "Most Likely" Gladwell wonders what it takes to hire good teachers. He notes that a poor teacher can retard the learning of his/her students by half a grade level every year. After a couple of years of poor teachers, a child might be so far behind that even very good teachers can't bring that child up to grade level.

Gladwell's argument is that the reason it is so hard to hire good teachers is that we don't know how to predict which teachers will be good. He notes that a degree in education is no guarantee that a student will become a good teacher. This isn't because college students who go into education are sub-standard (as some have argued). Instead, teaching is such a complicated task that the only way to do it well is to, well, do it well.

As in most of his work, he then proceeds to suggest how schools can hire better teachers by discussing cases from analogous fields. He notes that a highly successful college quarterback may or may not be a good professional QB, simply because the professional game is so much more difficult than the college game. In other words, college football is to pro football as a degree in education is to teaching.

Gladwell's preferred analogy for picking good teachers is the way that financial advising companies select new financial advisors. North Star Resource Group, the financial advisory company in this piece, interviewed 1000 people before selecting 49 for a four month "training camp" where they do the work of a financial advisor under the supervision and oversight of a professional. At the end of the four months, North Star selected 23 to hire full-time.

Gladwell argues that schools should follow North Star's practices, hiring new teachers with self-discipline and good people skills (but not necessarily an education degree), and then auditioning them for a time to see who flourishes in the classroom. (This is, by the way, roughly the way that Teach for America selects and trains its teachers, but counter to the practices and the laws governing the hiring of teachers for the public schools.)

Gladwell says nothing about higher education, but his argument has some interesting implications. Higher ed has long been a place where professors are hired for their expertise in a field, and not their teaching skills. Once they are hired, profs get relatively little oversight--they learn to teach alone. Professional development does take place, but usually in a manner disassociated from the day-to-day teaching work of the faculty.

No one would argue that American higher ed is being overwhelmed with excellent teachers, and at least some would argue that colleges and universities are imitating the declines that have afflicted K-12. If colleges and universities were to seek to create excellent teachers along the North Star/Gladwell model, here is what they would do:
  1. Decide in advance what sort of teaching they value, and to what end. (Right now even campuses highly esteemed for the quality of their teaching have no consistent pedagogy--faculty teach how they prefer).
  2. Train graduate students to teach in their preferred way and toward their selected ends, and then hire them to work at the school. (As it is today, no campus worth its name would hire its own graduate students to teach there. This is especially the case at smaller, less prestigious schools who try to hire graduates of the Ivies in order to raise the profile of their faculty.)
  3. If they don't have a PhD program, instead of using adjuncts simply to fill holes, colleges and universities should hire adjuncts with the idea in mind that they will eventually become full-time faculty. Being an adjunct would become the equivalent of being an apprentice, complete with close supervision, regular mentoring, and replacement if the adjunct doesn't meet the standard. (As it is adjuncts rarely get much guidance. Nor do they end up with full-time jobs where they adjunct. And the longer the period of adjunct work, the less likely that a person will be hired as a full-time faculty member.)


Bryce said...

Interesting stuff. I'll have to read the article that you refer to (I also need to pick up Outliers).

Your thoughts here remind me of a book I just finished called Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation (Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger, 1991) that you might find interesting. In it they analyze the apprenticeship model and what we can learn from it about effective teaching and learning. The premise is that the best learning occurs within communities of practice (the Academy would be one of these) where newcomers are valued members of the community and participate in its practices in a meaningful way (like a graduate student who teaches a course at a university or an adjunct that works towards full professorship) and has access to other novices, "experts", etc. that can provide guidance, feedback, etc.

The idea of an apprenticeship for faculty members is intriguing.

gary said...

Thanks for the comment. I've never seen the book you reference, but I have read some of Wegner's later stuff on communities of practice. Seems like in some ways higher ed has communities of practice, but often without the self-consciousness that allows them to function as sources of learning, rather than labor systems.

derek bitter said...

What other things does Gladwell say are essential qualities of teachers? You mention self-discipline and good people skills. I'm wondering what Gladwell says about the role of teachers since he seems to be more concerned about personal attributes of a teacher rather than their knowledge of educational practice.