If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

With teaching semester almost upon us, here’s a thought for you university lecturers out there.

I’ve been at a teaching workshop this afternoon, where we’ve been discussing how teaching and research can link together – i.e. that they are not two completely inseparable activities, as we often think.  There were a number of presenters (I was one – I felt really flattered and somewhat of a fraud talking about this subject) and one point that came up was how different people and departments approach the idea of ‘experimenting’ on students.

You can’t improve the way you teach (or the way you do anything) if you’re not prepared to change something and see how it goes. "You can teach for twenty years, or you can teach for one year twenty times", as one saying goes. But some in the group described how some departments can be very reluctant to let lecturers change anything.  "But what if it doesn’t work?" – they say – "then the students will be worse off. You’ll have harmed their education. If it ain’t broke, why are you thinking about fixing it?"

That’s a fair response if the course and the way you teach it genuinely ‘ain’t broke’.  But how do you know that it ‘ain’t broke?’. I suspect that many people who wheel that line out don’t actually know how effective the teaching in question actually is.  Until you do (and a good score on course appraisals does NOT equal good teaching) you really can’t make any informed choice about whether to leave something alone or to change it.   Remember, not changing anything is a choice of action in just the same way that changing something is a choice.  To those who think it’s unethical to use your students as guinea pigs by trying a different teaching strategy I would ask whether it ethical to deny your students better teaching when it could be available to them. I mean, what would you think if Graham Henry refused to try out any new players because they might not be as good in an All Black jersey as the current ones?

Unless you are prepared to make the effort to find out how good your teaching really is, and to try out schemes that could improve the areas where improvement is required, you will be no better a teacher this year than you were the year before, or the year before that, or the one before that… And it will be your students who suffer most.

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