Learning is a basic need. We are born with curiosity which gives us the easy ability to learn to speak and walk, barring a physical or mental disability. Over time, we may develop obstacles to learning which impede the acquisition of knowledge and skills, or which at least make the learning process much more belaboured. Yet, the natural desire to learn remains, even if sometimes deeply buried.
Good teaching points to ways of overcoming those obstacles and taps into the natural desire to learn. Educators who achieve the greatest success with their students are able to engage them, to draw on their curiosity, and make the learning process both stimulating and meaningful.
As the articles by Denis Jeffrey, Clermont Gauthier and Stéphane Martineau affirm in this issue, “seduction” is both a telling and apt metaphor for effective teaching. It appeals to the emotional and intellectual dimensions of learning, enthralling students, making them aware of the possibilities and limitations of knowing.
Who are the truly “seductive” educators? We have all encountered at least one in our own university education. They have qualities which are enduring and transcend both place and time. Paul Axelrod’s article identifies a number of these qualities. They include knowledge and inspiration, enthusiasm, open-mindedness, humour, approachability, a masterful understanding of a subject and an accomplished ability to convey this understanding to a student audience.
Exceptional educators are likely born with a number of the qualities that allow them to excel. But, they also nurture and develop these qualities over time. For an outsider, the “teacher training” of faculty might appear a curious and somewhat antiquated process. It involves an apprenticeship of graduate education, teaching assistantships, and often a period of sessional or part-time teaching. Until relatively recently, there were few formal resources available to new faculty to allow them to develop and improve their teaching skills. All too often, graduate students and new faculty can still be left to their own devices, with the expectation that good teaching will be acquired through osmosis.
The current university teaching environment also challenges even the most talented educators. Faculty hiring has not kept pace with enrolment growth over the past two decades. The result is a dramatic growth in class size and the number of students per faculty. Large classes constrain the ability of educators to engage students both inside and outside of the lecture hall. Funding shortfalls have resulted in a strained university infrastructure, rationed student services, and inadequate hiring of non-academic staff. Undoubtably, these pressures affect the atmosphere in which students learn.
Students are also more challenging to teach. Compared with the experience of the baby boomers, the echo generation is more likely to combine study and paid work, creating time pressures and divided loyalties for students which faculty feel pressure to accommodate. Some blame a growing culture of disengagement and entitlement where students are interested only in credentials rather than intellectual development. The significance of this culture and the accuracy of this description of university students is certainly a debatable question.
Technology brings its own opportunities and impediments to university teaching. Faculty now face a generation which looks to cyberspace for it information needs. Professors have responded with multi-media lectures, web-linked instruction, and other technological innovations. But, as Axelrod asks, does immersion in cyberspace and video games mean that current students learn differently than those of preceding generations? Is embracing this new technology in the classroom the answer?
Added to this litany of concerns are pressures to assess both teaching and learning, in the name of accountability and quality enhancement. Quantitative performance indicators and other surveillance promise to accurately measure “learning outcomes” and gauge whether “aims and objectives” are being met. The danger is that the organic process of learning is transformed into a mechanized and standardized accounting of “inputs” and “outputs.”
Everyone in the university community loses when the conditions which foster good teaching are eroded. We may lose sight of what higher education can achieve. At its best, university teaching provides students with a sense of wonder. It encourages creativity, and gives students the confidence and independence to intelligently challenge their teachers. It speaks to our innate curiosity and need to learn. It seduces us with possibilities and the promise of new insight.
Mark Rosenfeld is editor-in-chief of Academic Matters and associate executive director of OCUFA