Educational Engineering

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

One of the participants in this week's instructor training course mailed me to say, "[We] were discussing some of the ideas we were talking about in educational research and I feel like we are missing 'educational engineers'. Does this discipline exist? I feel like we don't really have the people to take the research that's been done and build something with it."

The answer is that we actually do have educational engineers: at the K-12 level, many of the people who write textbooks and other learning materials have lots of training in pedagogy, and the curriculum they create goes through the same sort of careful review that plans for a new dam go through. But that's usually not true in higher education: most of the people who write textbooks at the post-secondary level are domain experts with little or no training in pedagogy. And even in K-12, people with no background in education at all frequently overrule experts on both content and method.

But there's another reason why "educational engineering" isn't common-place: as Fincher and her colleagues have found, it's difficult to transfer the "how" of teaching in static form. Good musicians can sight-read, but the angsty hipster in your local coffee shop probably still practices for hours before performing any specific piece in public. And if delivering someone else's lesson is more like playing a song than like building a house from someone else's blueprints, there's less reason to polish the written version. And since there's less payoff, neither K-12 nor universities make time for practice in teachers' schedule, which means it isn't considered normal, which means time isn't set aside for it, which means there's no point polishing the lessons, and around and around we go.

Technology could help us break this vicious circle: sites like Edthena could allow teachers to learn the "how" from each other in the way that musicians can learn from one another's recordings and videos. But technology alone won't persuade the people who control teachers' budgets and schedules to give those teachers time to practice. That's a human problem, and therefore much more difficult to solve.

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