Teaching Malpractice

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?


16 thoughts on “Teaching Malpractice

  1. I appreciate the idea behind this phrase, teaching malpractice. I think I might broaden it to educational malpractice, taking into account that how teachers teach takes place in a larger institutional and cultural context and is not merely the result of individual teacher’s decisions. Large class sizes, for instance, is an example of educational malpractice, something that most teachers would not choose.

    But either way, it should strike people as incredibly odd that we do not do what we know to do and are not held accountable for that in ways that other professions are. And the accountability efforts in motion seem liable to make things worse.

    Part of the difficulty is that we’re doing something with less immediate and less tangible results than medical doctors. If you take out the wrong organ, the problem becomes immediately evident. If you do not help someone become as thoughtful as they could have, well, that’s harder to pin down and harder to attribute to one specific cause.

    But, actually, now that I think of it, the medical profession (at least in the US) has institutionalized some very similar malpractices, particularly in ignoring universal preventative care. But that too cannot be pinned down to one specific person who can, say, be sued. I point out this similarity to suggest that as a society we have a very hard time, not just in education but with definite consequences in education, doing what we know we need to do when we have to take into account whole systems, with series of indirect connections, to do so. We have to address that someone in higher education.


    1. I think educational malpractice is probably a better descriptor. However, I think this takes responsibility away from the individual practitioner and transfers it to the sector. You are right in pointing out that much of this is not up to the individual, however, I have been working in this area for 20+ years, and most of the responsibility does lie with the individual teachers. Teacher cognition clearly deserves the blame, but that belongs to individuals, not the sector.

      I know that I find myself having to lecture in team taught modules, but not without making it clear that I feel that hour after hour of talking is not teaching.

      If there were a suit for malpractice, would the suit be more likely to be successful against an institution or against a teacher?


      1. I just did a search for “educational malpractice lawsuit”. It appears that the cases that have been brought to court have been against schools or school systems/districts.

        Apparently the legal bar for educational malpractice is much higher than what we might describe as educational malpractice in day to day speech. Which is probably a good thing.

        I cannot imagine lawsuits driving productive change in higher education. I can see them driving change toward ever-increasing reductivism.


  2. Thanks for this, Jesse.
    Can you point me to the study that claims that only 8 percent of college teachers reported “taking any account” of research on teaching and learning into preparing their courses. I recall reading reference to this in an article by Derek Bok several years ago, but can’t put my finger on the original source.


    1. Keith, the only reference I have is to Derek Bok’s 2006 “Our Underachieving Colleges” (Princeton UNiversity Press). I’ll see if I can’t find the original source and post it to you.


      1. Thanks, Jesse. I’ll do some digging, as well. The claim probably isn’t a surprise for those that are responsible for instructional development in a university setting. But it is also very hard to measure accurately – and will be, as a result, easy to challenge. What, exactly, constitutes “taking account of research on teaching and learning?”


    2. Keith,

      The reference is:

      Stark, J. S., Lowther, M. A., Ryan M. P., & Genthon M. (1988). Faculty reflect on course planning. Research in Higher Education, 29 (3), 219-240


  3. Courts today have protected HE from accountability. colleges and Universities in many cases bring in unqualified professors and rely on self-teaching as a method of education and for that students pay enormous fees. What we find is that the students are paying for the right to put that college or University on their resume but the actual learning is well below the grades provided. There needs to be a first case that brings this problem to the forefront and makes these $50K+ schools accountable for the quality of education provided.

    My daughter attended a College charging $50K+/year and found that they ramped up on their student enrollment and to accommodate hired unqualified professors. Of those who taught her major classes freshman year 1 was fired 2.5 months into the first semester for failing to teach and 3 others were asked not to return the following year. The college felt that despite the evidence of problems they were not responsible for the lost education. Suing for a refund is proving hard to come by because such colleges are protected by teh courts.


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