Learning About Teaching Now

Lessons old and new at the annual Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching conference

Stephen M. Kosslyn, of Minerva, has pioneered in applying the science of learning to design a new core curriculum and technologically based pedagogy.
Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JSR

This year’s Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) conference, the seventh annual iteration, held on September 21, highlighted new leaders’ new priorities, widening community interest in improved teaching, and the continuing challenges of attaining those ambitions in the context of a broad research university with widely diverse schools and even more heterogeneous faculty members pursuing their distinctive disciplines and pedagogies.

Making his first appearance as president, Lawrence S. Bacow recalled that he attended the first HILT gathering in 2012—his public coming-out as a new member of the Harvard Corporation. He put the 2018 iteration in the context of contemporary challenges to higher education. “We are perceived as elite at a time when that has become a dirty word” the president said, half-joking that it is fine to be termed an elite quarterback, but disadvantageous to be dubbed an elite university.

Trying a more comfortable definition, he suggested that “We stand for excellence” in all that Harvard does. HILT, he noted, “elevated our commitment to excellence in teaching and learning”—by stimulating data-informed conversations about student learning; by prompting inquiries into using technology to organize information; and by exploring “What are our students actually learning?” Resorting to language from his former service at MIT, Bacow said that the aim was to focus in a deep way on “how…we adapt our teaching so there’s a far better ‘impedance match’” between what faculty members are trying to convey in their courses and what students learn.

But something bigger was on his mind, too. Saying “only a small number of students are ever going to learn at Harvard,” Bacow issued a challenge to the several hundred conference participants: “How can we ensure that what we are doing here benefits all the students who are trying to learn in America?” He noted that four-fifths of those enrolled in higher education are learning at public institutions (the focus of his work on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Lincoln Project, discussed here), and urged the audience to help Harvard reach out “as true partners [who] engage with other institutions as humble partners, as generous partners,” willing and able to share what Harvard knows about teaching and learning, and to learn from others what it does not know.

This emphasis on partnerships—and on putting Harvard’s work in its broader context—is now established as a core theme of the nascent Bacow presidency. He sounded it during his recent return home to Pontiac, Michigan, and in related meetings and public appearances in Detroit. And consistent with his remarks last February 11, when his appointment as president was announced, Bacow is urgently trying to connect Harvard’s core academic work—all of it— to his larger social mission, to help improve the external environment and the rising criticism of elite, selective institutions like the University. As he said in concluding his HILT remarks, the faculty and staff members present have roles to play in articulating the values Harvard stands for, and in changing “the narrative about higher education” so that it becomes clear “we exist not to make Harvard great but in order to make the world better.” (Speaking Friday evening at the public-health school’s capital-campaign celebration, The Harvard Crimson reported, he made the same point in a disciplinary context, saying that “What happens here is not just public health; it is public service.”)

An “Intentional” Curriculum

The day’s proceedings then turned to the core matter of how to enhance pedagogy and learning. Moderator Erin Driver-Linn, who recently concluded service as HILT’s director (she is now at the public-health school), put the matter succinctly: HILT—as community forum, source of grant support for teaching innovations, and hub of information about effective teaching—had served to highlight that “Nobody wants there to be poor-quality teaching at Harvard.” Across the campus, she said, there are many examples of “transcendentally excellent teaching. But there are a lot of moments that are middling, and there are still some, fewer and fewer, that are poor.”

The challenge is translating good intentions—the desire for effective teaching, understanding that there is room for improvement, and the commitment to effect it—into action in individual classes, departments, schools, and the University as a whole. Good teaching, Driver-Linn said, reflects the choices instructors make before, during, and after each course, from the syllabus and assignments through the context in which learning takes place. Teachers, she said, are “designing an experience” (not just assembling a reading list), and “that experience is supposed to have lasting effects.” Although academics tend, in their scholarly fields, to consult the relevant literature and to seek evidence, they have proven reluctant to do so pedagogically, even though there is an established literature on the science of learning—drawing on cognitive science and neuroscience, psychology, education scholarship, and more—with direct relevance for teaching practice.

Bob Kerrey—former governor, senator, and New School president—emphasized education for democratic citizenship.
Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JSR

What would higher education look like if an institution designed its pedagogy and curriculum together, on learning-science principles—rather than evolving, as most have, through the individual classroom decisions of hundreds of teachers? That is not a rhetorical question: the venture-funded Minerva Schools at KGI (profiled in depth here) features a first-year common curriculum designed to introduce and reinforce the use of common learning objectives and intellectual skills, taught in seminar fashion through a desktop platform called the Active Learning Forum—all based on prescribed principles derived from the scientific literature on learning. As faculty members planning the HILT conference encountered Minerva’s model, Driver-Linn said, they found it provocative and reacted heatedly, with one characterizing it as “creepy, reductionist, hyper-instrumental, a killer of the magic” of teaching and learning. [Editor's note: The following sentence and link added September 25, 2018, 8:00 a.m.] (In a different context, Bacow was the lead author of a nuanced 2014 paper on the institutional setting within which individual faculty members make decisions about what and how to teach—useful background on issues that shape the adoption of pedagogical innovations.)

To prompt wider discussion, and to encourage Harvard faculty members to be more intentional about their own, very individual, pedagogical decisions, HILT brought two Minerva principals to the conference: executive chairman Bob Kerrey, the former governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska, and a past president of the New School for Social Research; and Stephen M. Kosslyn, Minerva’s founding dean and chief academic officer (and a previous dean of social science, chair of psychology, and Lindsley professor of psychology at Harvard).

They joined in a conversation moderated by Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Claudine Gay, who said the lessons from Minerva “stung a bit” as she read about it. Kosslyn said the school’s central aim was not the instrumental objective of inculcating in its students data literacy or technological literacy, as some critics may have thought. Rather, he characterized it as “human literacy”: the skills that go into leadership, negotiation, communication, creative analysis and proper definition of problems, problem-solving, and understanding the emotional context that shapes human interactions and decisionmaking—in other words, the attributes that make for successful leaders, able to adapt to a rapidly changing world, in ways that technology and artificial intelligence cannot reach. “Context in general is something humans are really good at,” he said, but “it is very hard to program because it’s open-ended.” (As an example of that context, Kerrey said a central Minerva object is teaching “what democracy is and what it takes to sustain it.”)

Kosslyn said that “a general-education program is absolutely critical” for pursuing the kinds of goals Minerva has set out. Drawing on the science of learning, he said the greatest educational challenge was “far transfer”: teaching students to apply what they know to other, different contexts from the one in which they first encountered it, and applying what they know over time. In that light, the effect of general education, or any education, has to extend far beyond the immediate classroom, and to stick for life—rather than just lasting until the day of an exam, or a few days afterward. Thus, Minerva’s pedagogy repeatedly engages students in applying what they have learned, and does so in different contexts—a system of returning and revisiting fundamental principles and competencies, all mediated through the school’s technological instructional platform. Over time, the curriculum and pedagogy aim to establish “habits of mind” that students carry forward into their lives after school. (Minerva’s first cohort of students will graduate next spring.)

(Harvard College’s revised Gen Ed curriculum is still being shaped, for introduction in the fall term 2019. Professor of psychology Jason Mitchell, the relatively new chair of the faculty committee overseeing the curriculum, has now relinquished that position, and so the new dean of undergraduate education, Zemurray Stone Radcliffe professor of English Amanda Claybaugh, now has that urgent priority added to her own agenda.)

Gay asked about the challenges of training faculty members to teach this way. Kosslyn said that most college teachers revert to the “sage on the stage” impulse (lecturing), and feel their teaching is validated by conveying information and seeing that students take notes. Minerva’s teaching faculty are newly assembled, and not physically present at the institution per se, and, by default, teach flipped classes (students do their reading and exercises before course meetings) using the active-learning technology, with repeated exercises and constant updating of students’ demonstrated understanding and learning progress. Kerrey noted that students find the learning intense: they cannot come to a “class” session unprepared, and they have no down time during the sessions. How well the learning takes, Kosslyn said, will be determined not by examinations at the end of a semester, but by assessments a year or more later—and in students’ subsequent lives.

The Harvard context, of course, is very different: the learning community is residential, the faculty members are expected to be scholars of the first rank. Minerva does not have a campus, and its teachers do not do any research in conjunction with their appointments. Gay pointed out her colleagues’ dual roles, and the expectation that students’ learning will come from the classroom, their extracurricular activities, and the residential experience. The enduring tension in a research-university setting, Kosslyn said, is that faculty members’ “incentive structure is…centered on research,” and must, somehow, be reconciled with research. Kerrey emphasized how important Harvard’s research role is, and how successful and influential that enterprise has been. Kosslyn observed that given the ubiquity of superb research at Harvard, there are virtually limitless “opportunities for students to have experiential learning” in virtually all fields, and the institution might want to “systematize that” into its instructional DNA.

He told how engagements with faculty mentors, initially slight but growing in breadth and depth, had shaped his own research career. If Harvard wants to proceed, he said, it should “get serious about it—if teaching is important, reward it,” even through modest incentives such as prizes, symposiums, and monetary recognition for good teaching.

Putting Lessons about Learning to Work

In the spirit of active learning, the HILT conferees then reconvened in two sets of group discussions: a series probing the keynote panel with Gay, Kerrey, and Kosslyn; and a set exploring ways to implement some of the strategies and techniques that had been presented. 

In the first group, a student panel—with five representatives from the College and graduate schools—examined how well Harvard was meeting its goals for teaching innovation. All five agreed that the University needs to do a better job of teaching “real-world’ skills: for example, by adopting more experiential-learning experiences, or course formats like flipped classrooms that reserve class time for hands-on work rather than for lectures. Echoing some of language critiquing Minerva as excessively instrumental or careerist, the student panelists presented a reality: undergraduates are “increasingly aware of what the labor market is looking for,” one panelist said. “It used to be…mostly juniors and seniors engaging in the job search. Increasingly, we’re seeing sophomores and even freshmen engaging in these conversations.”

In a simultaneous session exploring Harvard faculty members’ views, Emily Click, assistant dean for ministry studies and field education and lecturer on ministry at Harvard Divinity School, asked attendees to imagine applying the science of learning to active learning in their classrooms. Warren professor of American history James Kloppenberg posed questions, along the lines of Kerrey’s remarks, about how to encourage students’ character development in the classroom. And professor of government Dustin Tingley, who is succeeding Driver-Linn as HILT’s faculty director, sought discussion of several discrete proposals to enhance learning and teaching, ranging from more thoughtful use of the largely unscheduled weeks during the January winter session, to focusing regular departmental meetings on pedagogy, to overcoming students’ conservative inclination to favor the lecture format even when their teachers think it is less effective than more active learning formats.

During the ensuing give-and-take, faculty members suggested devoting part of new professors’ first semester to a course on how to teach; a library staff member present noted that there are librarian-prepared study guides for hundreds of courses—but many professors are unaware of them, and never use them or direct students to them. Discussants thought it was difficult to define what character is or how to teach it, but embraced modeling behavior in their classes: citing sources for statements, following up with students to ask whether their questions had been answered, encouraging civil disagreement, and encouraging students to have the confidence to give voice to unexpected or unpopular perspectives, and to accept feedback.

In a breakout session on “Simple Ways to Use the Science of Learning,” one interesting theme concerned the idea of communicating transparently and explicitly with students about the “big ideas” that the instructor wants them to come away with at the end of a course—and re-emphasizing those big ideas throughout the semester, not just saying it once and setting them aside. (Kosslyn might well approve.) Another takeaway was the efficacy of continuous feedback. Adrienne Phelps-Coco, of the Extension School, said she has used anonymous feedback surveys for years: “I will never teach without it again. You learn so much. You think you can assess how people are doing by looking them in the eye, but when you actually ask them, you learn things” you didn’t know. She reports back to students about the poll results, an idea that another participant in the room said she would try.

During another implementation workshop, staff members from the Medical School (HMS), Harvard Business School (HBS), and the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning reviewed, and had the participants try to apply, systematic methods for evaluating how well their classes work, and for testing the efficacy of new pedagogies, such as the flipped, cohort-based HMS Pathways curriculum introduced in 2015. Social psychologist David Levari, now a postdoctoral associate at HBS, used the scholarly coin of the realm—his own research—to demonstrate a popular fallacy that can hamper pedagogical innovation: the belief that someone who knows a great deal about a substantive matter is inherently expert at teaching it, a phenomenon he called “the curse of knowledge.” In fact, he said, knowing a subject well may make it more difficult for an expert to understand the perspective of someone who is new to, or less expert in, the field. Good teaching, in other words, often resides where one does not look for it. Hence the efficacy of research tools to find out what students understand, how well, and how they come to do so.

Moving toward Adoption

Over lunch, Dustin Tingley moderated a discussion with Provost Alan Garber, who oversees HILT and other teaching-related work, and Byers professor of business administration Bharat N. Anand, senior associate dean of HBX (the business school’s online operation). Effective October 1, Anand, author of The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change, succeeds Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations Peter Bol as vice provost for advances in learning: becoming the faculty leader for HILT, the University’s online HarvardX operations, and associated research. (Bol,  the inaugural vice provost, has concluded his five-year term.)

Anand began by noting that digital technology had proceeded through three phases:

  • optimizing reach (as a newspaper, say, extends its print circulation to millions of readers, or a classroom teacher appears before thousands of students in an open, online course);
  • interactivity (as media change from unidirectional broadcasting to responsive forms); and now,
  • connectiveness (moving beyond a hub-and-spoke model, in both directions, to one in which participants can talk with each other, as on the social-media platforms).

[Editor's note: This paragraph revised September 25, 2018, 7:55 a.m., to further, and more clearly, reflect Anand’s comments.] The current, third phase, he said, has enormous implications for peer teaching and learning—and “we are only starting to realize its potential in online learning.” Content organizations in other industries that have managed to succeed digitally, Anand noted, are ones that have invoked the full power of interactivity and connectedness using digital technologies, while combining it with the old art of “storytelling.” On this point, he  recalled hearing from his faculty mentor, the late HBS professor David Garvin, how to conclude a story (or class). One narrative might be, “The queen died, and then the king died.” Another is, “The queen died, and then the king died of a broken heart.” Without invoking the science of learning, Anand said, “There are lots of things we just know” will have a more powerful impact on the reader or learner—with the second story line a vivid demonstration of the latter.

Alan Garber, provost, and Bharat N. Anand, newly appointed vice provost for advances in learning, discussed the challenges of adopting teaching innovations in the classroom—and the potential for extending Harvard pedagogies and courses beyond campus to promote lifelong learning in the wider society.
Photograph by Harvard Magazine/JSR

Thus, he said—perhaps as an antidote to some of those concerns about the Minerva system—“Learning and pedagogy are at the center of the enterprise, not content.” Teachers can invoke design principles and techniques to make their classes more effective, and the content must be wed to whatever technology they use and whatever platform delivers it to students, but the teaching enterprise itself is basic, and “strategy matters.” He explained how that happened during the creation of HBX: its creators deliberated carefully about who they sought to reach, what they wanted to do online, and how to differentiate it from other online offerings. Those critical three months, he asserted, have mattered more than anything else in the five years during which the product and service have evolved and been deployed.

Garber said everyone could obviously appreciate why Anand was the logical choice to be the new vice provost. Turning to what had been learned through HILT programs, he circled back, in a way, to President Bacow’s introductory challenge that morning. Garber said the conversations begun by HILT seven years ago had demonstrated both how many people at Harvard do care about teaching—and just how challenging it is to move from discussion of ways to enhance pedagogy and learning to adoption in the classroom. EdX and HarvardX, he reminded everyone, aimed, among other goals, to improve teaching on this residential campus—and he said it was frustrating that the impact had been limited. Much has been learned about more effective teaching methods, he noted, and then asked, “Why don’t people adopt them?”

The sorts of human factors Anand invoked clearly come into play. As Garber put it, “Part of what we’ve learned [is that] if you care about teaching, you also have strong convictions about it”—so it is not surprising that a teacher might require a “high standard of proof” before making wholesale changes. No one pretends that HILT, HarvardX, or the vice provost’s staff has arrived at definitive assessments of learning outcomes or proof of changes that yield optimal improvements in teaching; in that context, Garber acknowledged, “People need to be convinced” that what has been learned so far will work for them and their students. Significant changes in teaching and curriculums have been made, or are under way, across Harvard, the provost observed, from public health and law to the medical school, the Graduate School of Education, and the College’s pending Gen Ed reforms. That is evidence, he said, that “People…care very deeply” and that in every case, making change has “been difficult, not because of apathy, but because people care.”

Tingley asked about the president’s broader challenge. Garber said there was legitimate concern about “the future of work” as technology and artificial intelligence replace current jobs. Although he remains confident that new jobs will arise (requiring new skills, of course), “We need to have something to offer” those who are displaced. Viewing Harvard’s strengths clearly, he said: “We are not going to replace a community college—that’s not our comparative advantage.” But in the spirit of Bacow’s humble, generous partnerships, he pointed toward using HarvardX to teach leaders and teach teachers who never come to campus. (K-12 educators, and other teachers, already make up a significant slice of the audience for HarvardX online courses.) In this light, Garber said, “We need to think hard about how we can up our game and contribute” to society at large.

For his part, Anand said that in harnessing what has been learned on HarvardX and in the professional schools’ online offerings, there is “massive potential” to draw upon resources across the University to advance that kind of lifelong learning.

Associate editor Marina Bolotnikova and staff writer/editor Lydialyle Gibson contributed to this report.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

You might also like

The Poetics of Homelessness

A Harvard graduate’s reflections on being unhoused

“Edifying and Beautiful”

Botanical illustrations on display at Harvard’s rare book library

Sarah Ganz Blythe New Art Museums Director

Assumes Harvard post in August

Most popular

Parks for Tomorrow

Bas Smets harnesses nature to cool cities.

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

John H. Finley Jr.

Brief life of a masterful House Master: 1904-1995

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

Harvard Professor on Printmaking

An art historian analyzes an overlooked medium.

Dream Renovations to Harvard Yard Libraries

An ambitious plan for the next century of learning