This month I attended both TED and the inaugural ED FOO at Google. This meant that I got to have a lot of incredible conversations with other attendees and, unsurprisingly, many of our discussions had to do with education. (Good luck getting me to talk about other topics!) As I've said before, I wholeheartedly believe in the transformative power of education at all ages and all levels, formal and informal. As has been the case in most US-focused education discussions of late, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) was a hot topic. As was student college debt. Having these two conversations in parallel, repeatedly, made me think a lot about something that has been bothering me:
The expensive college education we are encouraging students to get in STEM is often, if not usually, delivered by professors who have no training in, or knowledge of, learning and pedagogy.
Most people would be upset if they found out that their child in a K-12 school was being taught by a teacher who had no education training whatsoever. In the US, though, that is unlikely to happen. Our public school systems require teachers to be certified, which involves testing and classes on education. (This is not the post where we will discuss the details of teacher certification.) Somewhat ironically, though, it is unlikely that the professor who teaches a STEM subject to that same student at the college level has ever taken a formal course in how to teach. A typical American PhD program in STEM does not require the student to teach a class on their own, or even as a teaching assistant (TA). In some schools, students only TA if there are not sufficient research funds for them, making teaching experience almost a consolation prize.
Knowing content doesn't mean that you automatically will be able to help others learn that same content. While it might be awesome for bragging rights to have a professor who has won a prestigious research award, that doesn't necessarily transfer to that same professor being able to successfully teach CHEM/PHYS/ENG/MATH/etc 101 to a room full of young adults who are often paying a lot of money to be there. The hiring process for faculty, particularly at universities known for their research programs, typically only includes a cursory evaluation of teaching. Similarly, while most university tenure committees have very rigorous external and internal review processes for the Research component of a professor's portfolio, I have heard colleagues from more than one school state that the teaching review essentially consists of little more than making sure they're not awful in a classroom. Even worse (as I touched on in this post) those professors will also only rarely have been taught how to help students with different learning styles and varying levels of academic preparation.
To be clear: There are many excellent educators teaching STEM at the college level. That said, there isn't a solid mechanism to ensure that, and rarely have I heard high school students (and their parents) told to investigate the teaching quality at the universities they are looking at. As this country loudly tells students how important it is for them to study STEM, to the point that we encourage them to accrue debt to pursue those degrees, we should also be asking whether they will be getting a quality education out of this endeavor.