University Leaders Discuss Teaching at Symposium

Pedagogy was the buzzword at a University-wide symposium on teaching and learning that brought together 250 faculty, staff, and invited panelists on Friday.

The symposium was organized by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, an effort to foster innovation in the classroom funded by a $40 million dollar grant from Law School alumni Gustave M. and Rita E. Hauser in October.

“Today we see innovation happening all across Harvard,” University President Drew G. Faust said in her opening remarks on Friday. The question at hand for the symposium, Faust said, was, “How can we embrace all the possibilities before us as teachers and learners...and make constant renewal a part of every teacher’s life?”

Change in higher education was a recurring theme of the event. Speakers presented novel teaching techniques that cater to the science and technology of the 21st century.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen discussed the possibility that many of a university’s functions could be supplanted by online schooling.

“I believe that if we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be,” said fellow panelist and Duke professor Cathy N. Davidson.

In response, some faculty members argued that some aspects of the traditional university—including research and mentorship opportunities—could not be replicated by online academies.

“We need to think about technology not as being the silver bullet that’s going to solve all these problems—but it might help support the underlying pedagogies that are actually the real root cause for improvement,” said Bridget T. Long, a professor at the Graduate School of Education.

A panel of three professors, including psychology professor Steven A. Pinker, drew on insights from cognitive psychology to suggest teaching methods designed to improve long-term retention of information, particularly at the undergraduate level.

In afternoon sessions during the daylong event, faculty swapped ideas for innovative teaching techniques, such as education that makes use of peer instruction, video, music, and photographs.

Many of the professors at the symposium expressed satisfaction that Harvard is making a clear commitment to discussing the classroom experiences of teachers and students.

“Harvard as a university has not traditionally devoted a lot of energy to education,” said molecular and cellular biology professor Richard M. Losick. “This is great.”

One attendee pointed out that the people present at the symposium were those already most concerned about improving education, saying that addressing the attendees was akin to “preaching to the choir.”

Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 responded, “The challenge of the innovators in this room is how to be evangelists among their colleagues. We will support you in the central administration.”

Samuel M. Galler ’12 coordinated a group of undergraduates who presented a video on learning styles and teaching techniques to the faculty on Thursday evening.

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