I’ve been thinking a lot this past semester about how we assess teaching, for various reasons. During conversations about this topic, I realized that people come at it from different philosophical perspectives that depend on their worldviews (which aren’t mutually exclusive, but can occasionally clash). For the most part, I’ve heard people talk about evaluating teaching in higher education in three ways: student evaluations (usually end-of-semester surveys done routinely), peer observations (done in a variety of different ways in different institutions), and reflection on teaching via teaching portfolios or other forms of self-reflection.
While I agree that all these are important and that they gather three different and important perspectives that, taken together, give a pretty multidimensional (but still not fully holistic) perspective on teaching, I’d like to offer a curriculum theory approach as a lens for looking at this. The basic curriculum theory approaches discussed most in the literature are curriculum as content, curriculum as product, curriculum as process and curriculum as praxis (though these are by no means the only approaches, they’re the most popular ones). If you are unfamiliar with curriculum theory, here is a good, quick reference and if you want a book on this that also extends it from a higher education perspective, try this one by Barnett and Coate.
Curriculum as Content Transmission
If someone perceives curriculum as content, the first thing they would do when designing a course is to choose the content for it. This is problematic in many ways, including the hidden values behind which content gets included or excluded and how those choices privilege some learners while disadvantaging others (Michael Apple’s work on this is excellent, as is the work of several scholars of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy such as Ladson-Billings). Another critique of this model is that knowing the content does not necessarily tell us anything about how it will be taught, or what students will do with it once they’ve “learned” it. Designing multi section courses around the same content is not a guarantee of similar teaching quality or similar student learning.
Someone with a curriculum as content perspective would probably opt to assess teaching by:
Curriculum as Product
Curriculum as product is closest to a neoliberal perspective and focuses on assessing, in the most measurable ways, the “outcomes” of the educational process – so student learning outcomes. We would say a curriculum is good if student learning outcomes are achieved, and that multi section courses need to have the same learning outcomes. The main critique of this approach is, like the content model, who gets to decide which outcomes are most valuable, why do we expect learners coming from different starting points and with different needs and interests to reach the same endpoint over a fixed period of time? How does this privilege some learners while marginalizing others? What about valuable learning outcomes that are more difficult to measure, such as attitudinal learning outcomes? What about long-term learning beyond a course? Most universities (at least American-style ones) heavily emphasize learning outcomes and aligning course designs to learning outcomes.
Someone from a curriculum as product perspective might opt to assess teaching by:
Curriculum as Process
This approach focuses more on the actual interaction process between teachers and learners, rather than pre-defined content and outcomes (the key figure here was Lawrence Stenhouse). It’s not that it is a content-less or outcome-less education, but one that centers process-related values before choosing content and outcomes, and recognizes the importance of context for teaching and learning. So, for example, choices of content might depend on what this particular group of students find engaging, or different groups of students might read different content depending on their needs. The main critique of this approach is that it depends heavily on the teacher’s judgment and is difficult to “measure”. Clearly, “measures” used in a curriculum as product approach would not be applicable here, and more complex and qualitative measures of good teaching would apply; there would also need to be a good degree of professional development and mentoring for teachers in order to trust them to autonomously make appropriate judgments, flexibly, in context.
Someone with a curriculum as process perspective might attempt to assess teaching via:
Curriculum as Praxis
Curriculum as praxis is based on critical pedagogy (so the work of Paulo Freire, which builds on the critical approaches to education put forward by the Frankfurt school). Such a curriculum would be focused on social justice and power and the ways in which a classroom/education can challenge inequalities and injustices in the status quo. Looking at macro inequalities as a guideline to both the curriculum content and its process is important – because even processes that are meant to be “democratic” are difficult to achieve when there are power dynamics. The work of Cornbleth extends this approach by advocating for “critical curriculum in context”, where we not only consider macro power dynamics, but also micro power dynamics and intersectionality.
Someone with a curriculum as praxis perspective might do the following when assessing teaching:
Of course this last model faces similar critiques to the process model – no neoliberal policy maker wants to deal with fuzzy concepts such as educational processes and difficult-to-pin-down social injustices. But at some point, we as educators need to stand up and say that those ways of assessing teaching via proxies do not represent what good teaching is (however we define it) and that we owe our students better, and we owe ourselves better. And I haven’t even gotten into Hidden Curriculum. But here’s a good book on that, edited by Margolis.
What are some other institutional ways of assessing teaching? Which curriculum approach do they fall under? Tell us in the comments!
[“Weltanschauung” flickr photo by Robert Couse-Baker shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license]
via Tumblr Assessing Teaching: A Curriculum Theory Approach
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