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Sunday, July 30, 2017

“A Convenient Lie” or “What Research University Faculty Tell Themselves About Their Teaching”

“A Convenient Lie”  or  “What Research University Faculty 
Tell Themselves About Their Teaching”
This is one of the two post on higher education,  click on this link for the second one: "Three Myths of The Higher Education".

§ 1.
According to a dictionary, “a lie” is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
We all know, however, that there are different types of lying.
For example, there is a mercy lie, which is usually told to spare somebodies’ feelings (often are told to kids, friends, relatives).
But there is also a convenient lie, i.e. a lie people tell to themselves to spare their own feelings.
Sometimes we all are lying to ourselves, because the truth would make us feel sad or bad about themselves, or would require us to do something we do not really want to do.
A convenient lie is just one of many types of excuses we – humans – employ to avoid a feeling that we don’t want to feel, or doing what we don’t want to do.
We all do it. It is just a part of our human nature.
In particular, there is one, a very convenient lie, all faculty of all top research universities tell to themselves:
“I care about teaching”.
Dear Reader, if you are a teaching faculty, a know very well what emotion rises in you right now, after just reading the statement above – an anger.
That means, I have achieved my goal. I attracted your attention.
The “trick” I used, is called “a hyperbole”, or “an exaggeration”.
The actual self-lying statement is this:
“I care about teaching, as much as I care about other things”.
This statement is a lie – a convenient one.
Every faculty cares about many things: about the health, about the family, about the relatives, about the research – the list is long.
The truth is simple: for every teaching research faculty,
teaching is the last thing on the list of the things to care about.
This is just a fact.
It is not that teaching research faculty do not think about how they teach.
It is that teaching research faculty think about about how they teach AFTER they have thought about everything else.
This is just a fact based on the laws governing professional practices of humans1.
And as any fact, this one also does notrequire an emotional assessment.
For example, the magnitude of the acceleration due to gravity, close to the surface of the Earth, on average is equal to 9.8 m/s2. It would be nice to have it be equal to exactly 10! But that would have been just a wishful thinking.
We have to work with facts; not obsessing about the fact that that fact does not look like the one we would like to have instead as a fact.
Of course (!) faculty care about their teaching, but only in the amount left after caring for all other things in their life.
However, it would be wrong to conclude, that students are “doomed”, and there is no way to improve their learning experience through the improvement of teaching practices of research faculty.
The mission of this paper is to draw attention to a teaching model which overcomes the deficiencies of the currently employed teaching strategies (which have been around for centuries!).
I only hope that you, the Reader, will not read this paper in a way you could read Agatha Christie’s novels, i.e. you would not jump right to the end to find “who is the murderer”.
Like in Agatha Christie’s novels, the answer will only make sense for people who would closely follow the logical steps of the “story”.
§ 2.
The second logical step of this piece is to present the next convenient lie; which is:
“Science of education exists”.
This convenient lie is based on the perception that, when people think about things, ask questions, try to figure something out – they always do science!
But imagine that you are lost in a large city where you've never been before. And of course, you don't have your guidance system, your phone’s battery is dead.  Hence, all you can use is a map.
Your actions may look very scientifically; you think, you guess, you try, you compare, you assess, you correct, you guess again, you try again, you compare again, you make a conclusion, etc., etc.
This may look like a work of a scientist, but no serious scientist would call your actions as “doing science”.
The reason many people confuse a science with scientifically-alike actions is that many people define a science as based on the activity of a person doing something, which – in their eyes – looks like a science.
Simply put, people call “a science” anything they want to call “a science’.
However, a definition of a science is not based on a description of someone else’s individual activities.
(a)         The definition of a science is based on a description of a large human practice;
(b)          One of the key elements of a science is the existence of established and commonly accepted measuring procedures.
When different individuals apply those measuring procedures, the results do not depend on individual traits or views of the people making the measurements, or on the location where the measurements are being taken, or on a specific set of the parameters of the system to which the measuring procedures are being applied (the same set for the same type of systems).
Clearly, currently that is not a case for measurements taken in the field of education.
This means that currently there is no such thing yet as a science of education.
However, it does not mean that in the field of education scientific activities do not exist, and there are no scientists acting in the field of education.
There are scientists acting in the field of education, and there are scientific activities in the field, however, they have not yet led to the development of a science of education.
§ 3.
The next convenient lie is the one which is especially close to my personal professional practice.
It says that:
“For advancing teaching practices at a university level, institutions and society at large need to advance the development of the science of teaching (at the university level)”.
Firstly, the need for the advancement of teaching practices is proclaimed to be NOW, but the science of education will come only as the result of the future development.
Secondly (and much more significant), the mission of a science is NOT advancing any specific human practice. The mission of a science is the accumulation of our knowledge about the nature, about the universe (including those parts of the universe which are inside of human subjects).
An advancement within a given human practice occurs as the result of an advancement in the management within that given human practice. That advancement may be supported, or even initiated by the newly available knowledge, but it only happens as the result of the new specific goal established by a particular manager or a managing team – as a purpose/mission for the functioning of the manager or the team.
The goal of a scientific activity is new knowledge (which can be used for giving explanations or making predictions of various phenomena).
A better human practice is the goal of an organizational entity managing that practice.
Human activities which goal is an advancement of a certain human practice is called “social engineering”.
Scientific activities and social engineering activities are often overlapping, intertwined, entangled, hard to be separated. However, those are two different types of human activities, which require different type of analysis, different type of management, different type of funding2.
The transition from a field of scientific activities to a field of science requires a consensus building process, with the goal of establishing commonly accepted measuring procedures. The history of physics shows that this process is difficult and takes a long period of time, but possible, as a long as there is a strong demand from the scientists in the field. At the current stage of the scientific activities in the field of education, no one can predict, when would the demand for establishing commonly accepted measuring procedures in education become strong enough to lead to the establishment of the commonly accepted measuring procedures in education.
§ 4.
There is a specific example of the convenient lie discussed in the previous paragraph.
“Advancements in teaching university physics requires research on physics education”.
“Physics education research” is a term which is widely used and highly embraced in the physics community. The activities in the field of physics education research have been intensifying for at least two decades.
However, to a date, this research has not produced yet any measurable scientific result, which would lie beyond such statements as “practice makes perfect”, or “when students have a good teacher, they learn, otherwise, they don’t”3 (such “laws”4 can be applied to any level of teaching, including Pre-K12, K12, teacher preparation5, college and university levels, and do not depend on the subject taught to students).
At the current stage, physics education research is no different from a geographical exploration of new territories – so many new unknown species lie ahead, waiting to be uncovered!
The discussions in the field have been focusing on various aspects of teaching and learning processes; for example, the structure of teaching instruments/learning aids6,7(class handouts, lab manuals, exams, homework assignments, etc.); the structure of student-instructor interaction (on a site, online, blended, big classes, small groups, etc.); the type of the management of the students’ activities (passive lecture participation, active project based events, etc.), and many others.
In the absence of the commonly accepted measuring procedures, which would allow to assess students’ physics knowledge accurately and in a comparable manner, the conclusions of all the papers on the matter represent no more than a description of the personal encounters of the participants and their subjective assessments of the results of those encounters (those descriptions, however, may be presented in a more or less clear and structured form, and be more or less helpful to other actors in the field).
One of the examples of the currently “hot” discussion is: “Are project-based teaching practices better than traditional ones?”, and presented, for example, in a couple of recent publications in “Physics Today” (Volume7 #5, 6).
This discussion helps to invite faculty into a search for something new to bring into their teaching practice. However, there is no scientific evidence foror against the statement: “Project-based teaching practices lead to the higher student learning outcomes”.
One can often read that students involved into project-based activities give better course evaluations, than students taking traditional courses. But as a counter example, I can offer my own Elementary Physics courses, which I teach in the traditional lectures-labs setup, and yet receive high evaluations from my students8 ((1) it is not that I am against of trying studio-based approach, I just has not been offered an opportunity to try it out; (2) based on my observations, on average, even in the studio-based courses, students of 90 % of the faculty, use 90 % of their time on listening to an instructor lecturing in the traditional lecture style).
To this day, the physics education research community has not instituted as the common goal the establishment of the commonly accepted measuring procedures in physics education. This goal is achievable9,10,11, but so far overlooked by the majority of the actors.
However, as it was previously mentioned, if the goal of faculty is making improvements in the practice of teaching physics, this goal does not even require any scientific research.
It requires the adequate managing.
§ 5.
The adequate managing has to start from accepting the fact that for every teaching research faculty,
teaching is the last thing on the list of the things to care about.
There are no incentives, including extra money, or even tenure, which would move deeply involved in research faculty from his or her research to teaching.
Furthermore, the administration does not want to move deeply involved in research faculty from his or her research to teaching.
The research university faculty conduct, is what makes this university to be the research university. Any threat to the research is the threat to the university.
The second fact the adequate manager needs to accept is that hiring lectures solely dedicated to teaching is not the solution. There number of such lectures is never enough. And even more important, not every of such lectures may be doing a good job. In the current environment, the goal number one for ANY full-time lecturer is getting stellar evaluation room students. And for that, one may talk to students about family issues, or playing a stand-up comedian, or lowering the bar, or scaling the final grade making 45 out of 100 to be B+ (just some examples from my own observations). And no manager would like to exclude all faculty from teaching, even those who are not good at it.
The third fact the adequate manager needs to accept is that following the old managing paradigm will not lead to any significant improvements in teaching practices of faculty and learning experience of students. If it could, it already would.
However, the new paradigm for managing the process of improvement of university teaching practices is not really new. It has been developed and successfully used in managing business institutions, as well as a scientific research, and also teaching practices at Pre-K12 and K12 levels.
This “new” paradigm is called “effective team effort”.
Studies on the effective team structure, team building, team dynamics, have been around for at least fifty years (for example, in the sixties, a “hot” question was about building a team which would sustain an interstellar trip).
However, currently there is only one example of the attempt of the implementation of this parading at a large research university12.
But even that example does not represent an example of an actual effective team.
An effective team with the goal of improving a teaching practice needs to have an active professional in the field of teaching.
When a team with the goal of improving a physics teaching practice has only professionals in physics, that team cannot be effective.

It would be like a team of accountants were trying to fix a car. If they are smart enough and persistent enough, and resourceful enough, they will succeed. But at the least they could do it much faster if they employed the help of an auto professional.
When a physics professor needs to extract a tooth, he or she goes to a dentist.
When a physics professor needs to fix a carburetor, he or she calls the auto service.
When a physics professor needs to … – I can go on and on.
When a physics professor needs to improve his or her teaching practice, he or she says: “I’m smart enough to do it on my own”. 
Well, that was the best-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario is: “I don’t need to improve my teaching practice, it is already good as it is”.
There is also an intermediate scenario: “I may will have a discussion with someone about my teaching, but it has to be one of ours; I don’t want to feel myself stupid”. Why else no one wants to invite a professional educator to observe lectures?
Or maybe, it is a courtesy of a long-standing tradition of being secretive. I remember that in the time of the USSR, the most of the local meetings of the members of the ruling Communist party were open to public. Only when they had to address some behavioral issues of a member, or talk finances, the meeting was held behind closed doors. And Russian universities did not have faculty meetings. They had faculty and staff meetings. Staff members, of course, could not vote on the faculty issues, but surly could participate in the discussion. It is still a mystery to me, why, in supposedly the most democratic country in the world - the U.S.A., in supposedly the most liberal social institution - the academy, supposedly the most open people - university faculty, hold their meetings the same way Free Masons meet to discuss "how to rule the world" (the disclaimer; I have never participated in any such meetings; the last statement is just an attempt to finish this post on a humorous note).

The psychological trait (being afraid of looking stupid) of many people who consider themselves smart (and they are – in their field), or a cultural trend (being secretive) of people who consider themselves open, is a tough obstacle which an adequate manager building an effective team needs to overcome.
§ 6.
Physics is a very special subject. Physics represents a bridge between the abstract world of mathematics and the natural phenomena surrounding people. Physics as a science shares with mathematics the longest history of development, and because of that, has the best know structure of the knowledge representation. That is why learning physics effectively should become an important experience of all students13, 14,15.

However, an adequate manager should accept the fact that any issue with learning physics at a college/university level, or any issue with learning in general at a college/university level is not related to the college/university.

The vast majorities of issues related to learning at a college/university level come as the result of insufficient middle and high school preparation.

This is where the real “fight” should be happening.
 How many adequate managers do we have in large research universities
in the field of teaching physics? 16

This article has been followed by two more on the topic:

On the science of teaching science
Three Myths of The Higher Education 

Thank you for visiting,
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
Education Advancement Professionals

A copy of a note from the main page.

am not an idiot or a reckless person. The reason I can allow myself writing what I think, even if that is perpendicular to commonly adopted and conventional views, is that my financial situation is sufficient and stable. Of course, as a normal person, I wouldn't mind making more money, or being involved in more interesting projects (as described in my generic resume). But I do not have to pretend to be someone I'm not to make my living.

1. Valentin Voroshilov, “Professional Designing as One of Key Competencies of Modern Teacher” //
2. Valentin Voroshilov, “The Traditional Approach Adopted by the NSF does Not Advance the Science of Education” //
3. Valentin Voroshilov, “Critical Reading of “Making Sense of Confusion” by Jason E. Dowd, Ives Araujo, and Eric Mazur” //
4. Valentin Voroshilov, “Fundamental Laws of TeachOlogy: a Handbook For a Beginner Teacher” //
5. Valentin Voroshilov, “Becoming a STEM teacher: a crash course for people entering the profession” // at
6. Valentin Voroshilov, “Learning aides for students taking physics” //
7. Valentin Voroshilov, “A General “Algorithm” for Creating a Solution to a Physics Problem” //
9. Valentin Voroshilov, “A Map of Operationally Connected Categories as an instrument for classifying physics problems and a basis for developing a universal standard for measuring learning outcomes of students taking physics courses (a novel tool for measuring learning outcomes in physics)” //
10. Valentin Voroshilov, “Toward the science of teaching physics” //
11. Valentin Voroshilov, “What Infrastructure Do We Need to Build to Promote Education Research to a True Science?” //  
13. Valentin Voroshilov, “What does “thinking as a physicist” mean?” //
14. Valentin Voroshilov, “Physics Course to Every Student! Physics into Every School!” //
15. Valentin Voroshilov, “Physics as a Door into STEM Education” //

16. Valentin Voroshilov, “Ignoring sloppiness: a sign of tolerance or mismanagement?” // 

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