photograph by Jason Grow

A Culture Shift

Extolling the teacher-scientist.

Richard Losick became a scientist in part because of one professor’s enthusiasm and high expectations. now, as an HHMI Professor at Harvard, Losick is determined to show students that a life in science does not resemble a semester taking notes in the lecture hall. Universities should encourage creative teaching, says Losick, just as they reward outstanding research.

A professor I know is a master at winning research grants. He raises huge amounts of money and, with the blessing of his university, he uses some of it to “buy out” of teaching undergraduates. He devotes all his time to research.

I think it’s a shame. At a time when parents and alumni worry about the expense of a college degree and question the dedication of the faculty to undergraduate teaching, this scientist has retreated into his lab. His decision lends credence to the perception that the best scientists at research universities care more about their research and their professional advancement than they care about educating undergraduates. Have we all not heard “teaching load” in reference to our responsibilities to undergraduates? We never hear the term “research load.”

This professor’s buy-out from teaching demoralizes his colleagues; they are second-class citizens compared to him, because they are required to teach, and he is not. This reinforces the sense that research and teaching are in competition and that teaching is the lesser activity.

I see it differently. Research universities have two responsibilities that go hand-in-hand: to generate new knowledge and to educate young people. But recognition of teaching gets short shrift. If I am successful as a scientist, I get rewarded nationally and internationally through grants, awards, publications, and invitations to speak. My university doesn’t need to encourage me to do the best science I can. But beyond our own campuses, our achievements as teachers get little or no acknowledgment. (Exceptions include the national recognition granted to teacher-scientists by the HHMI Professors initiative and the National Science Foundation Distinguished Teaching Scholars program.)

Our institutions need to create an internal culture that promotes excellence in teaching as much as in research, extolling the teacher-scientist. How do we do this? In my department, we’ve found it effective to organize small teams of faculty members who attend one another’s lectures, discuss their observations, and then provide constructive (and confidential) feedback. The colleague whose classroom we visit not only receives useful suggestions but also gets the message that others in the department value good teaching. And here’s the unexpected part: not only are the visits fun, but members of the team get new ideas from watching colleagues in action and from the ensuing conversations. I even changed my PowerPoint font after a colleague pointed out to me that Arial is easier to read than Times New Roman!

Another device is for the university to invest in teaching awards that include funds for research, making it easier for the professor who is honored to sustain his or her research while contributing to the teaching responsibilities of the university. These and other ideas are presented in a recent Education Forum article I coauthored with 12 other HHMI professors (Science, January 14, 2011).

Clearly, I am a better educator for being a scientist. What might surprise some people is that I also find that I am a better scientist for being a teacher. In part, that’s because the best way to learn something is to teach it. Also, in designing a course, I must choose which concepts are the most important. In teaching, I’ve found, less is more. Deciding what to cover requires that I see my own narrow area of research (on an obscure spore-forming bacterium!) in the broader context of biology. This perspective, in turn, informs the questions I ask in the laboratory.

My experience explaining scientific concepts in the classroom has taught me how to communicate my own science better. I tell my graduate students and postdocs that doing good science isn’t enough; scientists must also communicate their discoveries effectively at meetings and job talks. I ask them to imagine themselves sitting in the audience listening to their own presentations: if the material were new to them, would they understand it? Would they find it exciting?

I’ve observed that universities devote much time to discussions of what we teach but precious little to how we teach it. Since few of us are familiar with education research, we fall back on teaching the way we were taught—in some cases perpetuating bad teaching. To remedy this, universities should train faculty members, especially beginning professors, in best practices based on education research. Universities should invest in learning centers where those with this expertise can show faculty how to teach effectively both in the laboratory and in the classroom.

Consider hands-on learning. HHMI professor Graham Hatfull has promoted the concepts of ownership and discovery in laboratory teaching. Hatfull’s students at the University of Pittsburgh are spared the “cookbook” experiments that a colleague calls “hands on … minds off.” Instead, Graham’s students become “phage hunters,” isolating phage from the soil. The enormous biodiversity at the microbial level ensures that Graham’s phage hunters almost always discover a new one. This provides ownership, because they get to name the phage, and discovery, as they sequence its genome and identify new genes.

HHMI professor Diane O’Dowd creates “garage demonstrations” to illustrate concepts to freshmen in the lecture hall, presentations that captivate students and effectively teach dynamic cellular processes. If you were to attend Diane’s lectures at the University of California, Irvine, you might see her use pipe insulation and a garbage bag to illustrate how a misfolded protein is degraded by the disposal machinery of the cell, or pairs of “dirty” socks to represent sister chromatids. If you dropped in on my molecular biology course at Harvard, you would discover that there is no level to which I will not stoop to engage my students. For instance, I don a crab costume to illustrate the “crab claw” model for RNA polymerase, and I spray my foot with blue food coloring to illustrate the technique of DNAse “footprinting.”

The invention of clickers has brought peer learning into the lecture hall. I ask the students a question and offer them several answers. Each student votes using a clicker, but I don’t show the results. Then I ask the students to discuss the question with their neighbors. And that’s wonderful: the whole classroom becomes raucous. Then they vote again, and I show the class two graphs with the distribution of answers, before and after. The proportion that gets it right goes up. I see this as evidence that it’s sometimes easier for a peer to understand what another student finds confusing and explain the concept than it is for a professor.

We hear increasingly from parents, alumni, funders, and opinion leaders who question the value of higher education. Among them is Derek Bok, the emeritus Harvard president who wrote Our Underachieving Colleges. When he read the HHMI professors’ Science article, he told me: “I am intrigued that so much of the impetus for better teaching is now coming out of the sciences, despite the common perception that scientists are least interested in teaching.” Indeed, it is scientists—and organizations such as HHMI—that have emerged as the leaders in the national discussion about how to teach undergraduates more effectively. Let us build on this impetus by fostering a new culture in our research universities, one that regards teaching and research as equally valuable.

Richard Losick is a professor and researcher in the Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology at Harvard University.