Responsibility to Teach or Responsibility to Learn?


Posted by Amanda Ziegler

Is it the teacher’s responsibility to teach or the student’s responsibility to learn? Certainly, the burden of responsibility is placed heavily on the teacher in the early years. Children in kindergarten are expected to arrive at the first day of school with some basic skills, knowledge, and abilities (Gisler & Eberts, 2016). However, if they have not quite managed to learn the numbers all the way to ten, the teacher is still expected to help them learn that and to teach them the next piece of information to prepare them for the next grade. So why, once our students reach the post-secondary level, does the burden of responsibility seem to shift almost entirely away from the teacher?

The challenge seems to be that many faculty do not have the time, nor perhaps the inclination, to consider how they are teaching. As Dr. Jack Lightstone (2012) phrased it in his thought piece prepared for the Brock University Board of Trustees, “we teach the way our professors taught us, and the way their professors taught them” (p. 4). Perhaps this pedagogy is defended with the notion that it must be effective as so many have been successful before and that if students today cannot learn this way, perhaps university is not the place for them. The emphasis on the traditional “sage on the stage” model of education is being challenged by the students of today: In a recent release from the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), Madden, Rose and Escher (2015), advocate for a shift to high-impact learning experiences.

Thanks to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU)(2015), there does, in fact, seem to be the possibility that the new funding formula will include some portion of the grant being tied to the quality of undergraduate teaching. After six months of consultation with various stakeholders, one of the metrics being proposed in the final recommendations is course evaluations. Also suggested is “teaching load” which is described as “average and distribution of number of courses taught (by type of instructor/faculty)” (MTCU, 2015, p. 56). There is little description, however, of how these metrics might be employed to effect change in the quality of undergraduate education.

While this set of recommendations seems to have considered many perspectives, tenure remains one significant factor impacting the ability of universities to be able to enhance undergraduate education. With respect to the quality of undergraduate teaching, the document suggests that the participants involved in the consultation process regarded tenure as both a potential challenge and a potential solution. The permanence of the position may be one of the reasons that faculty do not feel the need to improve their pedagogy. If we are to continue to support the concept of tenure, then it is paramount that we follow the suggestion made by The Globe and Mail (2011) and “reward universities that value excellent teaching and emphasize it in tenure applications.” Given that many of our students graduating at the PhD level will be juggling teaching contracts at many universities, it behooves us to ensure that they are prepared to be excellent educators (Choise, 2013).

In 1847, Egerton Ryerson thought it would be a good idea to create consistency in the way that teachers were prepared to enter the classroom. In Ontario, a Bachelor of Education degree became the method by which we prepared our K-12 teachers in the 1960s (Kitchen & Petrarca, 2014). And yet, we are still subjecting our best and brightest (this may be a point of debate) to university courses instructed by faculty who have never been exposed to the many theories and methodologies developed through study in the field of Education. Teaching has not had the focus, research has. The Globe and Mail (2011) positioned the issue quite directly, “Faculty compete for research grants. Why don’t they compete for teaching grants?”  It is time to tip the scales of responsibility back toward the teacher. We need to begin to train our PhD students to teach, and reward (and/or penalize) faculty for the quality of undergraduate teaching in universities.


Choise, S. (2013, Tuesday April 30). PhD numbers have doubled but few graduates will find teaching jobs, Ontario study finds. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved January 24, 2016 from

Editorial (2011, Monday October 10). Canadian universities must reform or perish. The Globe and Mail. Online at

Gisler, P., & Eberts, M. (n.d.). Kindergarten readiness checklist. Family Education. Retrieved January 24, 2016, from

Kitchen, J., & Petrarca, D. (2014). Teacher preparation in Ontario: A history. Teaching and Learning, 8(1) 56-71.

Lightstone, J. (2012). Whither pedagogy? A ‘thought piece’ in an era of transformative change at Brock. Retrieved January 25, 2016 from

Madden, S, Rose, Z & Escher, A. (2015). Formulating Change: Recommendations for Ontario’s University Funding Formula Reform. Toronto: Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. Retrieved January 26, 2016, from

The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU). (2015). Focus on outcomes, centre on students: Perspectives on evolving Ontario’s university funding model. Retrieved January 25, 2016, from