Harvard meets Roosevelt Academy

Nieuws | de redactie
26 juli 2011 | What does excellence in teaching mean? Two experts from the Harvard Derek Bok Center visited Roosevelt Academy (RA) in Middelburg to give insights. Main lesson: a proper philosophy is key in teaching excellent students.

One of the speakers, Michael Burke, Head of the Academic CoreDepartment at RA, stressed that universities had to catch up interms of focusing on quality teaching versus research. Currently,”teaching is extraordinarily undervalued, while research isovervalued”. Universities would often push their academic staff topublish research papers instead of preparing classes properly.Their institutions look for reputational gain by being more visiblein the research world while students are only second priority.

“Teaching? Only if you got time…”

By shifting their focus to students, universities could createmore sustainable prestige. Those students that are educated in anexcellent way will always be connected to their former school andserve as ambassadors of their alma mater. Consequently, Burke callsupon universities to draw lessons from the Veerman report and allocate more resourcestowards excellent teaching.

Right now, a professor who asks to put greater emphasis onteaching would hear “Teaching? Only if you got time…” as a responsefrom their faculties. This phenomenon is even more aggravated bythe fact that “university teachers are the only ones who aren’ttaught how to teach”. The regular training of professors does notinclude any didactic or pedagogic education per se which, afterall, is mandatory for elementary and high school teachers.

This would result in a teaching attitude where professors facingstudents ask themselves in every class: “How do I get my notes hereto your notes there – with as little brain interaction aspossible?” Such an approach, however, would degrade professors to”talking textbooks”. Instead, Burke calls for teaching to beunderstood as “a conversation with students, not aperformance”.

Orchestration of Learning Experiences

Terry Aladjem, lecturer at Harvard, concurred with this view andemphasized that teachers should understand themselves as “creatorsof learning experiences”. By using ‘reverse-engineering’, teachersshould ask themselves “not what they want students to know, butwhat they want them to do with that knowledge later on.”Accordingly, course syllabi would become less an enumeration oftopics deemed important by the academic world and more an”orchestration of events to achieve the goal of true learning”.

This philosophy already sets in at the level of course design.In “syllabus workshops” Harvard would bring together bothrepresentatives from the “teaching and learning community” in orderto let students have a say in what they are going to learn. RenéDiekstra, lecturer at RA and Haagse Hogeschool, added that suchfeedback from student to teacher is seen as most impactfulaccording to a wide range of studies. Essential for establishingsuch a relationship between student and teacher is building an”atmosphere of safety” where students are invited to “co-constructthe course together with the professor”.

Putting it into Practice

All these aspects refer to a fundamentally different way ofteaching. Thieu Besslink, creator of the Learning Labat the University of Amsterdam, Free University and AmsterdamUniversity College, put this new philosophy into practice. Duringthe Day of Excellence, Besselink stressed that to make these newapproaches work universities had to give teachers more leeway intrying out new concepts.

In his opening speech, HansAdriaansens, dean of RA, stressed a similar point that it isfinally also the responsibility of the universities themselves tooffer the right context for excellent teaching. “If you throwMessi, Cruyff and me in a swimming pool, you will see that theyalso won’t be able to play better soccer than me because this isnot the right place where they can show their talent.” It wouldrequire a “supportive organizational context” for students andteachers to excel.

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