Why Is Teaching So Prone to Fads?

Mar 16, 2021

Teaching is full of fads, big ideas that promise to revolutionize instruction. A few years ago, MOOCs graced the covers of newspapers as a way to bring college to the masses on the cheap. At some point, gamification was going to be the answer.

For this week’s EdSurge Podcast, we’re revising an episode from the summer that looks at a teaching fad from the 1960s and ’70s that has almost vanished from the discussion. It was called PSI, or Personalized System of Instruction. The approach involved having students read through material at their own pace rather than go to lectures, and move on to the next part of the material after they had passed a test on the previous section. It was low-tech, but it foreshadowed some of the adaptive learning systems of today.

For a while, PSI was used extensively at colleges across the country, including MIT. The National Science Foundation gave out grants to support it at colleges. Fred Keller, the psychologist who devised the method, even set up a center at Georgetown University devoted to the idea, called the Center for Personalized Instruction.

But almost as quickly as it emerged, the practice faded. Even Keller later admitted it was a failure, calling it a “flash in the pan.”

This week’s episode raises a bigger question: Why does education seem prone to faddism?

Our guest, Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who researched PSI for a book on the history of college teaching, has a few insights.

For one, he says, there still isn’t widespread agreement on what good teaching looks like. So part of pitches for new methods involves arguments about the goals and focus of teaching efforts.

Another major factor is the high cost of traditional teaching. In fact, Zimmerman argues, people do know a way to teach that works—having teachers spend time getting to know students and connecting material to their experiences. The problem is finding the will to pay for that, and to make high-quality education accessible. As Zimmerman puts it: “Better teaching costs more money.”

What teaching fads have you seen come and go? Is there a way to avoid that pattern? As you listen to this encore episode, share your thoughts on Twitter under the hashtag #teachingfads.

Listen to this encore episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below.


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