Is there such a thing as teaching malpractice?
With all the evidence that would make up the corpus of the scholarship of learning, do we as institutions have a legal obligation to adopt best practise (in a real sense – not in an everybody does it this way sense)?
The current thinking in HE is that we are professionals, and we can approach our teaching in any manner we choose. It doesn’t matter that the approach we favour is ineffective as far as learning goes, we have a right to choose the way we want to teach.
Would this be acceptable in the medical world? When I go to a medical professional for treatment, they have some obligation to treat me with the most effective form of treatment (I would hope). If they don’t, and I find out that they haven’t, I can enter a claim for clinical malpractice. Is this a possibility in the world of higher education.
Let’s take lecturing as an example of teaching practise. In 1972, Donald Bligh wrote a comprehensive review of the research evidence on teaching in HE – curiously, the book title was What’s the Use of Lectures? In this review, he looked at over 700 studies that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of lecturing as a learning event. As Graham Gibbs recently wrote in the Times Higher:
More than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.
For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.
A review by Hughes and Mighty written in the more recent past (2010) reinforced Bligh’s damning indictment of lecturing as learning events written over 40 years ago. The recent article in The Atlantic by Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:
In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.
When does the use of a teaching method with so much evidence stacked against it become malpractice in education?
More importantly, when does the wilful ignorance of the scholarship of learning in education become grounds for a malpractice claim? In October of last year, Corrigan highlighted the results of a survey showing that only 8 percent of college teachers reported “taking any account” of research on teaching and learning into preparing their courses.
This is unacceptable!
How could any institution or sector defend themselves in a court of law if a class action lawsuit were to be launched against them for malpractice.
As I read the reflections of my students who just completed my Science of Education module in the autumn, I actually had tears in my eyes as I read of their frustrations with the missed learning opportunities they had experienced (and paid good money for). They were lamenting the time spent wasted sitting passively through lecture after lecture, believing that they were engaged in an effective learning activity, only to find out, in my class, that lecturing is such a poor method of learning (they find this out themselves, I never actually tell them this – it is part of their self-directed learning experience).
In my mind, this is as unacceptable as allowing homeopathy practitioners access to state funds to treat serious diseases because they believe that what they are doing is effective.
I look for the first group of students who take on a HE institution in a civil suit over their collective wilful ignorance when it comes to evidence based practice for effective learning. Not being a lawyer, I have no idea what their chances of winning might be, but from a rational point of view, I wouldn’t bet against them.
How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?