Study: "Teachers Don't Matter. Teaching Methods Do." Right.

millerBy Melissa Miller, Ed.D., M.Ed.
A recent article caught my attention. The headline read: “Study: It’s not teachers, but method that matters.” Yikes! The article describes a recent study by Carl Wieman, of the University of British Columbia, who shared a Nobel physics prize in 2001. The study “suggests that how you teach is more important than who does the teaching.” Really? Tell that to the parents in my local elementary school who line up outside of the principal’s office a year in advance to request the “good” teacher, the only one who can possibly teach little Precious. This quote is somewhat unclear, at least to me. Suppose how you teach is more important than who does the teaching. Okay, but isn’t the faculty member the how you teach variable in that equation?
Wieman found that “in nearly identical classes, Canadian college students learned a lot more from teaching assistants using interactive tools than they did from a veteran professor giving a traditional lecture.” Interesting findings, certainly, but it begs several questions. The study compared against the traditional lecture, and this format is somewhat obsolete already, at least where I teach. Most professors I know use a variety of learning tools and strategies, including technology and various teaching methods. I have not seen a sit-and-listen lecture, with no student participation or feedback, in a long time. I myself had a few of these in college and I did learn from these courses and professors. I also had small, intimate, hands-on classes where I learned as well. I enjoyed and learned from both of these classroom formats. I understand how, in a large University, sometimes the lecture-hall class is necessary. The workload is transfered more to the student, and when properly motivated, real learning can occur. Isn’t that also a key factor of learning – student motivation and work?
Another aspect to this study I found interesting was that the students who “engaged interactively using the TV remote-like devices scored about twice as high on a test compared to those who heard the normal lecture.” Does this surprise anyone? The more engaged and interested the students are, the more they are retaining the material, and the teacher can check for comprehension on-the-go. But is the argument here against professors or is it about teaching methods? Also, what is a “normal” lecture? Additionally, the technology used to engage students is great – anything that helps with immediate feedback on progress and comprehension can be a welcome addition to the classroom. But doesn’t an effective professor have to be present to interpret and change the lesson based on that real-time feedback? Doesn’t an effective professor gauge comprehension and understanding in any lesson?
So, does the professor matter? Or is it about the student? Or is it all about the content and delivery? I see the point the researchers are trying to make, but I don’t believe that instructor quality, personality, background, and methods are irrelevant. Why does it have to be one or the other? What about a stellar professor who has interactive lectures, a professor who studies adult learning styles and theories, and incorporates those into the classroom? Wiesman is so bold as to say, when talking about professorial brilliance, “There’s ‘nothing magical about a particular person.'” Do you agree?
About the New Adjunct: Dr. Melissa Miller completed her Ed.D. with an emphasis in Teacher Leadership from Walden University. She holds a M.Ed. from Mary Washington University and a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Virginia Tech. Dr. Miller’s professional and research interests include adult and online learning, professional development, and literacy. Presently, Dr. Miller works as an adjunct instructor and an evaluator, while also enjoying her role as a wife and mother.

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1 Comment
  1. Kat Kiefer-Newman says

    Hi Melissa!
    I saw the title of this post and thought “OMG! What now?!” This seems like yet another attempt to corporatize higher ed (or worse, do away with it altogether for everyone except the moneyed elite).
    Weisman’s so-called findings extrapolate out to a virtual plug-and-play methodology that really subtracts what I have come to believe (anecdotally, of course, *snort*) is the key ingredient in teaching: the teacher. If methods are king, then anyone truly can teach any subject. Higher and deeper knowledge of the subject, mastery of the subject, becomes secondary (even unnecessary).
    I used to do computer training before I went back to college to get my academic degrees. I was trained, certified, and considered a specialist. I neither felt special nor particularly qualified, even though I tended to be more adept at the applications than anyone around me.
    I worked with several contract trainers off and on over the years, and because of this I developed a program that I called “training in a box”…the idea was that anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the program could grab my courseware and provide instruction for individuals and groups. Guess what? Yeah, it didn’t work so well! Being an instructor (a really good one, anyway) means having a certain amount of what I consider a calling, or at least an innate talent for communicating complicated ideas in ways that laypeople will grasp. That’s not a method! It’s intuitive and organic and can’t be built into a process.
    The truth is that I could write an entire blog about what makes a “good” teacher….except that I have a 700 word limit and wouldn’t be able to get everything in.
    Weisman’s study seems based on the old adage that “those who can do and those who can’t teach,” which I’ve never given much credence. Are there “bad” teachers out there? Oh, absolutely. Would having a clear structure to follow help overcome the failings of a “bad” teacher? It couldn’t hurt. But structure is only one piece of the whole story.
    I love this post, Melissa! Fantastic job!
    – Kat

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