A while back, I wrote a post about the four levels of Empirical Education. To recap, they are as follows:
- Intuitively empirical: Intuitively empirical educators are curious about their students and try to figure out how to help them when they see them struggling. They try different things and pick up tricks in their teaching as they become more experienced in the classroom.
- Mindfully empirical: This means that the educators try to create as many opportunities as possible to evaluate how their students are doing and make little (or big) adjustments to her teaching strategies constantly as they get to know their students better. Intuitively empirical educators are empirical in the moment. Mindfully empirical educators are empirical by design.
- Metacognitively empirical: Metacognitively empirical educators have made the leap from assessing their students to assessing themselves. When a class struggles with a concept semester after semester, metacognitively empirical educators don’t just accept that the topic is hard. They ask whether their teaching strategies might be part of the problem. They challenge their own beliefs about good teaching.
- Socially empirical: When educators reach the level of being socially empirical, it means that they have begun to see that testing teaching strategies and learning to improve can be a shared endeavor. It can be a discipline, with common language and standards of evidence for effectiveness. Socially empirical educators see teaching not just as an art that is personal and ineffable but as a craft that can be taught and learned, and maybe even as a science that can be advanced through shared research and peer review.
This isn’t just a taxonomy. It’s a theory of change. Anyone who has participated in course redesign efforts likely recognizes the milestones of this progression. That’s not an accident. Course redesign, particularly when properly facilitated by experts who are themselves practitioners of Empirical Education, can move the instructors who are going through the redesign process at least partway up the ladder. In fact, it often happens spontaneously.
Let’s take the example of launching a distance learning program. In most cases, these programs are going to attract intuitively empirical educators. People who aren’t curious about the process of educating students usually don’t volunteer to teach using a method that they’ve never tried before. (And when they are forced to do so, it is often a disaster.) So distance learning programs are often lucky to get a preponderance of instructors who are already on the first rung of our ladder.
Teaching online with any degree of quality almost always forces a course redesign. Educators moving from a physical classroom to a virtual one lose some senses while gaining others. Likewise, certain strategies they have come to rely on in the classroom won’t work online and have to be translated to or replaced by strategies that will. And the educator that is new to online teaching isn’t always going to know what will work and what won’t. They are almost required to become mindfully empirical in order to figure out how to replace the bandwidth they lost in the transition.
Sometimes, the process of trying new strategies because of the redesign provokes the empirical educator to rethink some of her basic assumptions about teaching. Anyone who has helped educators get courses online for more than a couple of years has likely heard at least a couple of them say that the experience of teaching online has caused them to change the way they teach in the classroom. That’s the beginnings of metacognitively empirical education.
And this is where things start to get hard, for several reasons. First, it’s very difficult to get faculty to make the leap to metacognitively empirical education without a conversion experience that happens when they have to teach their course differently. Both experience and research tell us that many educators—and probably most humans—have deeply held beliefs about what makes for effective teaching based on their own formative experience as learners. No matter how otherwise rational and open-minded they are, they are not likely to be persuaded by research studies. They have to live the change. Outside of distance learning programs, it’s hard to programmatically create new opportunities for formative experiences.
Second, even when they do live the change and bring new ideas back to their other classes, that doesn’t mean that they have reached the point where they are mindfully or systematically examining their own teaching strategies. Doing the latter requires both another step of self-reflection and some new skills. So a key challenge for Empirical Education is to make it easier to reliably give educators the right experiences, prompts for further reflection, and tools for investigation, in the proper order. Universities aren’t currently set up to do this. But they could be.
The third challenge in climbing the ladder is moving from metacognitively empirical to socially empirical. Educators who have made the metacognitive leap tend to get excited. It can be a life-changing experience. So they often want to evangelize. But where? If their home institution isn’t already creating a fertile environment for them to share teaching strategies with their peers—which it usually isn’t—then the metacognitively empirical educators tend to go to discipline-specific conferences, where they end up swapping ideas with a small circle of people who are already converted and largely share their background and training. This is far from ideal for cross-fertilization. So another great challenge of Empirical Education is to create new opportunities for metacognitively empirical educators to find each other and learn from each other across normal silos in higher education, like discipline or school type.
Phil and I believe that colleges and universities in all segments across the sector are beginning to make the transition from a philosophical commitment to student success toward an operational commitment toward student success. What that looks like in the end, and how long it takes, is up for grabs. Empirical Education is, among other things, a theory of change that is intended to accelerate the progress of that transition while strengthening the institutions of higher learning that have served civilization so well by empowering and motivating educators to be change agents.