Because Higher Ed Teaching Matters

by Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

With the Annual AERA Conference (and a big congrats to my friend Bill Tierney, the AERA president, for heading this great organization) convening next week in cold and overrated San Francisco, this is perhaps a good opportunity to talk about teaching and learning in higher education.

I’ve always been astonished how little we focus on teaching and learning in higher education. Think of it this way: higher education has produced close to 100 percent of ALL current teachers in the United States and Canada. And in almost every other industrialized country in the world. Why? Because higher education is, well, higher. The expertise resides in our colleges and universities; our research drives innovation (well, theoretically).

A Brief Interlude for Boston… Roy Orbison and k.d. lang – Crying

So how come higher education, itself, doesn’t focus on teaching at the “higher” level? Incredible, when you think of it. The arena that creates millions of teachers (over 3 million K-12 teachers in the US alone) does little to nothing for teaching in higher education. Dropouts in high school are often attributed, in part, to poor teaching. And dropouts reside in the 75 percent area, depending on geographics and demographics. What does this mean for higher education, where dropouts are 50 percent? Could it be that teaching matters there, too?

This week, the University of Calgary received a $40 million donation—the largest in UC history—to create the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. According to UC President Elizabeth Cannon, the new institute will “lead” in education innovation by engaging students; supporting faculty; and by creating “the most innovative learning spaces available anywhere in North America.”

$40 million.

I’m thinking they can do this.

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When I first read the piece (courtesy of my friends at Academica.ca), I was a bit taken back that a family foundation would focus on teaching in postsecondary education as their big-ticket item. To be fair, the Taylor family also provides millions for the Taylor Family Digital Library and the Kathy Taylor Chair in Vascular Dementia. So philanthropy isn’t anything new to them. But this focus on teaching is.

“We have always been in favour of enhancing teaching skills at the university level, and have come to understand that the learning process is an integral part,” says Don Taylor. “We find the teaching and learning initiative to be an exciting challenge.”

University brass see the Taylor Institute as a lever for the University of Calgary to become a top-five Canadian research institution. And a new 43,000 square foot building will become the epicentre for this effort.

The Centre, which already exists but will undoubtedly benefit greatly from the Taylor family contribution, will not officially come online until 2016. But will this give a boost to other universities on both sides of the 49th parallel to put more effort into teaching and learning? Let’s hope so.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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