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Bud Sambasivam

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Is Canada Discouraging Good Teachers?

Posted: 12/15/2012 12:15 am

Imagine this. A three-year-old child is seated in a room with a Smarties box on the table in front of her. When asked what she thinks is in the box, she replies "Smarties", of course. But when she opens the box she finds pencil crayons.

Now picture an adult, John, entering the room. The child is asked, "What do you think John thinks is in the box?" The child answers "pencil crayons."

Why does the girl project her insight onto John? Why does she assume that John sees it the same way? It's known as the curse of knowledge. Once you learn something, it's difficult to imagine how someone might not see things in the same way as you.

A great teacher has the gift of seeing how students still see the Smarties and the patience to show him otherwise. A great teacher can hold a student's hand and take them on a journey of understanding: from Smarties to pencil crayons.

Do you remember your favourite teacher? I bet they found joy in seeing students undergo this transformation. The best teachers see a little miracle happening, every time.

Many university professors are great teachers. Many are not. I'm baffled that those who are great teachers are saddled with research. And those who are great researchers are saddled with teaching. More importantly, why do universities saddle students with these subpar teachers?

Some argue that professors must be able to do both. Yet, professors at Canadian Universities are generally promoted based primarily on their research abilities -- on how many publications they get, and how much research money they bring to the university. Teaching is only superficially acknowledged as important. You can become a full professor if you're a cutting-edge research and a lousy teacher. But the opposite does not hold.

Canadian universities should hire teaching professors and research professors. The teaching professors should not be graduate students hired as lecturers. Rather, teaching professors should be separate tenure-track positions. Equally emphasizing teaching with researching in Canada's publicly-funded university system is what tax payers expect. We want our sons and daughters to learn.

Some say teachers should bring their research into the classroom. This is important in graduate level classes, where the students themselves are conducting research and are on the cutting edge in a given discipline. However, for an undergraduate student learning Chemistry 201, they really need someone who excels at teaching. They don't need someone to bring cutting-edge chemistry research into class. It will only further confuse things.

Some of the weakest professors I had could not understand how I, as a budding engineer, could not comprehend the laws of physics. They did not have the patience to take me on the journey from Smarties to pencil crayons. They did not have the imagination to do it in a creative way. They belonged in a laboratory discovering new things, not in a classroom forced to teach.

At my school of engineering we had two professors who taught the same subject. One brought in millions of dollars to the university from research grants, attracted top graduate students from around the world, and ran a world-class laboratory. He was, however, a horrendous teacher.

The other had a twinkle in his eyes as he explained force, acceleration, and mass to a class of third-year engineering students. He loved to teach and we loved to learn with him. To every class he brought a yard stick and he'd use this simple device in imaginative ways. He'd spin it like a baton while explaining inertia in a fly-wheel or he'd bend it off the desk to explain a cantilever beam. He won several teaching awards. Despite being late in his career, he only ever achieved the level of "associate professor" -- never promoted to full professor because he lacked the research credentials.

What would happen if this associate professor only taught and the researcher spent more time in the lab? Students would learn more, and the university would have more publications and more research money.

If there were teaching professors, then they could be trained as teachers. Under the current system, professors receive no training as teachers. Just because they were once students, they won't necessarily become great teachers. Similarly, just because someone has had a lot of dental work doesn't guarantee he will become a great dentist.

For their part, research professors get excited with discovering pencil crayons in the box. However, once they find the pencils they want to go on to the next discovery. They don't want to explain the pencil crayons a million times to new students.

Teaching professors need to be nurtured, celebrated, and not saddled with research. Just as there are Canadian Research Chairs, so too there should be Canadian Teaching Chairs. Universities and funders need to create teaching professorships.

 
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