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What qualifications does it take to be considered for a faculty position at a four-year college or university? Guy Boysen (2021) recently answered that question for the field of psychology. He surveyed 267 faculty, asking them to describe the minimal research and teaching qualifications needed by those applying for jobs at baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral institutions. Even with likely variation in the qualifications across disciplines, it’s still instructive to consider a case in point, and of course, of most interest to us are the minimum teaching qualifications: two years of teaching experience. That’s it. Boysen notes that about 60 percent of doctoral programs in psychology offer a “college teaching course,” but having taken such a course was “not an essential job qualification at any type of institution.” Boysen calls that “an unfortunate blemish for the profession” (p. 46).
So new teachers can rely exclusively on the instructional knowledge they derive from experience. Is that a good thing? It’s not an easy question to answer. Despite our reliance on experience, we know very little about its characteristics as a knowledge base. I looked yesterday in my database of more than 700 teaching and learning articles, and I could not find a single one that addresses the features of experiential knowledge.
What does it take to learn about teaching from experience? I’d start the list with objective analysis derived from critical reflection: a cold, clear-eyed view of what happened in an instructional situation, why it turned out that way, and how to do it better next time. That sounds pretty straightforward, except that the clear-eyed view must be able to see through vivid emotional overlays. Teaching expresses personhood. It exposes vulnerabilities, which new teachers often feel keenly. In fact, vulnerabilities follow us through our teaching careers.
Is experiential knowledge reliable? Sometimes. Expectations that teachers learn from experience are loose, more generic than specific. Academic leaders and departmental faculty expect new teachers to improve, and most do. Even so, experiential understandings of teaching and learning tend to be hit and miss, meaning teachers learn some things but not others. Some of what they learn is correct, and some can’t be described any way other than wrong. But whatever new faculty (and the rest of us for that matter) learn is never assessed. We don’t have professional standards that establish criteria for experiential learning.
Learning from experience is sounding pretty bleak at this point, and yet many faculty grow wisdom from practice that promotes learning and changes students in the process. As difficult as objectivity is to come by, it can be cultivated, especially if we subject what we’ve learned to external verification. “Here’s what happened, what I’ve concluded—what do you think?” External verification can be provided by insightful pedagogical colleagues and from students who know firsthand how the teaching affected their learning. External verification can also be found in a vast literature that includes some amazing illustrations of what reflective instructional analysis looks like. It also holds a huge body of empirically generated work that explores in exquisite detail every imaginable aspect of teaching. Unfortunately, those loose professional expectations about learning from experience do not include requirements for external verification. Few consequences occur if teachers carry on, building a teaching practice on their private world of pedagogical knowledge.
Experiential knowledge does hold one powerful feature: what the teacher learns expresses that person’s unique identity. Around that core hangs knowledge drawn from a confluence of forces involving what’s being taught, in what kinds of courses, at what sort of institution, and to what kinds of students. Yes, we can extrapolate some universal understandings from the shared experience of teaching, but there’s a bevy of details that make what every teacher has learned from experience unique. Yes, we can and do learn from and with each other, but what makes experiential knowledge especially powerful is how it can be tailored to fit the identity and circumstances of the individual teacher.
My friend Larry Spence used to say, “Experience isn’t a teacher with plans and purposes. Experience happens. We can learn from it, but without a teacher, it’s a risky way to learn.”
Boysen, G. A. (2021). Research and teaching qualifications for faculty positions in psychology at 4-year colleges and universities. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 41–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320959977
Experience without mentoring and training is generally inadequate. My observation is that people will teach as they have learned unless given direction and support in approaching instruction through new pathways. It is not surprising, therefore, that lecture and term paper/exam remain the overwhelmingly dominant strategy – despite the well-documented shortcomings of this traditional approach.