Grants For Improving Teaching

Should universities give money to professors for improving teaching, or should they spend the money for other purposes such as scholarships or reducing the price of tuition or eliminating fees? The need to improve the quality and effectiveness of teaching is beyond question (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education). But, should universities pay for that activity, or should it be part of the normal job duties of professors?

You likely know that I have been continuously improving my teaching through the application of Lean principles and practices for 15 years. But, did you know that I never received any grants for this work, nor have I ever applied for any? It never occurred for me to even ask. And did you know that when money does need to be spent to engage in some trial and error teaching or conduct some teaching experiments, I pay for that out of my own pocket?

Perhaps my error was in listening to sensei from Japan who trained me in Lean management.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports in “How Big Money Can Encourage Calculated Risks in the Classroom” (11 December 2014) that Harvard University and the University of Michigan will devote $40 million and $25 million to improve teaching. Grants of up to $50,000 are available to faculty to take “calculated risks in their courses,” with grants as high at $3 million to scale up teaching experiments.

My feeling is that this is a waste of money, and funds are better directed towards students in need of financial assistance. Faculty trained in the scientific method should be applying the scientific method to teaching as part of their normal job routine. The fact that the quality and effectiveness of teaching remains low for decades is not due to a lack of funds, but instead a lack of intrinsic motivation, poor professional performance, flawed faculty evaluation systems, lack of attention by university leaders to the principal value-creating activity in a university, and so on.

According the article:

“‘Harvard and Michigan are opinion leaders,’ says Dan Bern­stein, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and a former director of its Center for Teaching Excellence.”

No, Harvard and Michigan are opinion laggards.

Chihiro Nakao, one of my senseis, is a great teacher. I have learned many many things from him. You can benefit from his teachings as well. The first applies to university leaders, from department chair to president:

“I’m surprised you are paying engineers [teachers] to make heavy, complex, expensive, tooling [teach poorly]. It’s kindergarten, not professional.”

“A manager who cannot identify 100 things to improve before lunch should not be allowed to eat lunch.”

The second applies to faculty:

“Professionals receive wages. To get paid as professional, you have to apply intelligence to make things better.”

 “You are paid for yesterday. Professionals must think about making things better tomorrow.”

“When you are paid by the company, you must think of new things.”

Faculty should improve their teaching a little bit every day, rather than waiting for extrinsic motivators to appear in order to improve their teaching. The former respects students, while the latter does not.

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