A Higher Calling — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on July 10, 2017

“The system must change first,” said a colleague. “These things are above the power of mere teachers when it comes to changing higher education.” His argument was that only administrators, especially at the top, can prompt significant systemic changes and ensure major shifts in teaching/learning culture.

That was at one of the webinar (web seminar) sessions for which an inspiring group of Tribhuvan University professors were meeting a few months ago. To share a little more of the context, this informal group has been meeting every first Saturday of the month since last year. Building on a similar project at Midwestern University the previous year, three Nepali scholars at different American universities facilitate these one- to two-hour online training sessions. The group practices strategies for improving semester-based education in their classrooms and institutions. The professors, including scholars who are in significant academic leadership positions in both public and private/affiliated institutions, are essentially training themselves to train others in the future, using additional expertise from their colleagues abroad. The project has been greatly productive. And it has raised important questions about innovation and change in higher education.

One of those questions is, as stated articulately by the colleague above, whether teachers can change the system and culture of higher education on a national or even institutional level. Or, rather, as the discussion evolved that day, how and how far can teachers effect change and innovation, and what conditions do they need for making significant impact?

Conditions and realities on the ground do restrict change and in ways that scholars abroad can forget or not know yet. For instance, where final exams measure all or most of student success and teacher performance, content knowledge naturally marginalizes the teaching/learning of academic and professional skills. If marks sell, private colleges will continue to pitch them as the measure of “quality education” to parents, never having to update its definition. If public universities continue to be mired in teacher and student politics, professionalism will remain stymied in them. If power dynamics within departments and institutions are toxic, especially younger scholars cannot be effective, regardless of their expertise and commitment. And without a strong culture of research and training, home-grown ideas for improving education can’t become abundant. So, indeed, teachers cannot easily tackle broader challenges on their own—especially without a combination of substantial training, institutional support, and exceptional personal resilience.

It must also be noted that the above issues aren’t unique to Nepal. I have observed them in different forms in the higher education of other countries that I have visited or learned about. Academe is generally known for slow change (and adaptation/response to change in society outside) in most societies. And people in any culture give up or blame others when they feel devalued or see no room or need for change. For example, in a meeting about how to reduce failure rates among international students some time ago, someone said, “our teaching has been perfected.” Solutions to student failure, the person added, must be found elsewhere, especially in the motivation of new generations of foreign students. Never mind that the students were failing, to begin with. So, yes, professionals in any society tend to see dead ends when they believe that they can’t affect change in system and culture, or if they think they’re done trying.

However, in any society, educational innovation cannot happen if teachers do not first of all challenge assumptions, disrupt binaries, take risks, and just keep trying. If anyone, educators must look and work past beliefs based on simple oppositions. To change teaching/learning culture, both system and individuals must act, both administrators and teachers must contribute. Teachers can change a lot of things in the classroom even while institutions drag their feet, if they try to mobilize all parties and build on strengths. Teachers can make the greatest impact when they continually train themselves, exchanging ideas and practices within and across disciplines. For example, in our training group, scientists and management scholars have found a lot of common challenges and solutions and have offered inspiring new perspectives to each other. When teachers go into their classrooms equipped with enough ideas and enough commitment to implement them until they change minds, they can reshape the system.

Of course, policy changes are necessary to institutionalize teaching innovation. For example, if teachers continue to be rewarded for “participating” in training rather than for improving teaching, change will be invisible or even punished. A new training regime is needed where teachers receive promotion and perks when they demonstrate success, such as through independent and reliable student evaluation, higher marks alongside greater professional development of students, and systematic and professional evaluation by peers. Establishing awards for excellent teaching can also encourage dedication and change, especially if “seniority” doesn’t dominate teaching evaluation. Increasing professors’ salary and benefits—at least on par with similar public services—can retain and attract more talent to the teaching profession. In fact, policy makers must make the quality of “teaching track” professors a major criterion of university ranking to help accelerate reforms in higher education at the national level.

But committed teachers can learn and implement a lot of new educational practices even while the “system” remains unchanged, gradually pushing it to institutionalize and incentivize those practices. For example, teachers can shift focus from delivering content knowledge to fostering discussion and analysis of ideas by adopting student-centered teaching methods. By rewarding contribution to class discussion and taking low-stake tests before lectures, teachers can make their student learn more actively. By creating syllabi and enforcing course policies, they can make students take ownership of their learning. If teachers start using course schedule, maintaining office hours, and adopting efficient techniques for formative feedback, they can greatly foster student success even within the current system. With or without new policies from above, teachers are the rubber that meet the road of change. So, the conversation must shift to the basic reality that with continued learning and enough resilience, teachers can do a lot on their own.

Teachers at private colleges in particular (as I have said here earlier) can lead change in their institutions, as well as their classrooms. Instructors at public institutions have even greater advantage. Our public education and educators are tremendously respected, and that respect can be used, alongside job security and greater professional incentive, to effectuate change. When teachers become institutional leaders, they can push different kinds of changes, such as updating tenure and promotion rules, promoting educational research, implementing new types of assessment and dissemination of new ideas and practices. But advancements in educational practice and culture are ultimately the sum totality of small and persistent changes by teachers, often before they are asked or allowed to change practices.

Teachers are in the business of creating new ideas. They must develop the ideas they want the system to adopt, helping adapt educational practices from other societies and cultures to local realities and educating other stakeholders in the process. For instance, in most countries, courses are still designed by curricular committees up there, remain in place for a long time, and often restrict teaching innovation. But even when the system update to give teachers more room and reward for innovation, it is teachers who must give life to new ideas.

Societies and institutions must empower teachers, but teachers must also be willing to empower themselves and use the power of their ideas and skills to change the culture. A newly democratic and rapidly changing society offers exciting opportunities for educators, alongside hurdles. Similarly, a rapidly globalizing world provides them with ways to connect with and learn from fellow teachers in other societies and cultures, as well as to use resources produced by their professional community across the world. A brief look at the short history of Nepalese higher education shows that even during the repressive Panchayat regime of the mid twentieth century, a lot of educational experimentation used to happen. This is another historical period when, for positive reasons, educators ought to not take established habits and traditions for granted. Educational innovation cannot be limited to what private colleges say on their billboard every admission seasons. Nor can we hope that the changing Chancellors or their appointees will somehow change the current culture of higher education for us.

Change can and has to come from a healthy crop of dedicated educators. Teachers can and must start by building from the ground up, disrupting binaries between institution and individuals, classroom and culture.

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