Archive for July 15, 2015

What Convinces CS Faculty to Change: Authority over Evidence

My Blog@CACM Post for July 2015 is on the Top Ten Myths of Teaching Computer Science. You can go take a take a look at it here.

I wrote that blog post because we really have had a long debate in our faculty email list about many of those topics. I recently saw our Dean at an event, and he told me that he hadn’t read the thread yet (but he planned to) because “it must be 100 messages long.” Most of the references in that blog post came from messages that I wrote in response to that thread. It was a long post because people generally didn’t agree with me.  Several senior, well-established (much more famous than me) faculty strongly disagreed with the evidence-based argument I was making. The thread finally ended when one of the most senior, most respected faculty in the College wrote a note saying (paraphrased), “There are probably better teaching evaluation methods than the ones we now use. I’m sure that Mark knows teaching methods that would help the rest of us teach better.” And that was it. Thread ended. The research-based evidence that I offered was worth fighting about. The word of authority was not.

I’ll bet that faculty across disciplines similarly respond to authority more than evidence. We certainly see the role of authority in Physics Education Research (PER). Pioneering PER researchers were not given much respect and many were ostracized from their departments. Until Eric Mazur at Harvard had his students fail the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), and he changed how he taught because of it. Until Nobel laureate Carl Wieman decided to back PER (all the way to the Office of Science Technology and Policy in the White House). Today, the vast majority of physics teachers know research-based teaching methods (even if they don’t always use them). FCI existed before Mazur started using it, but it really started getting used after Mazur’s support. The evidence of FCI didn’t change physics teaching. The voice of authority did.

While we might wish that CS faculty would respond more to evidence than authority (see previous post on this theme), this insight suggests a path forward.  If we want CS faculty to improve their teaching and adopt evidence-based practices, top-down encouragement can have large impact.  Well-known faculty at top institutions publicly adopting these practices, and Deans and Chairs promoting these practices can help to convince faculty to change.

July 15, 2015 at 7:21 am 27 comments


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