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


16 thoughts on “Responsibility to Teach or Responsibility to Learn?

  1. Great blog post, Amanda! Your points about tenure being part of the issue of teaching quality is one that I had not given much consideration to in the past, but I think it has merit for the quality discussion we have been having over the past few weeks. I think all professors, regardless of program, should have some form of teacher training to ensure that they are at least attempting to provide quality educational experiences for students.

  2. Thanks Courtney! I’m still unsure if it is tenure or the strength of the faculty unions protecting tenure but it seems to be that the permanence of the position equates to stagnation for some. And certainly training does not necessarily equate to improvement but it is at least a step as you stated.

  3. Amanda, very insightful post. You have raised a very important issue about teacher training at the post secondary level for Phd/Professors. While in many other careers/jobs applicants are expected to demonstrate various qualifications and previous experiences that highlight all the qualities and skills necessary to be the best fit for the position, it is so near-sighted that the universities only seek publication and research as quantifiers of the job requirements for a professor. This is something that the university should re-consider as acts not only as a person to inspire minds, expand and challenge ideas, and have lasting effects on future generations, but is also a representative of the university and what it stands for. If the university hires someone that is limited in teaching scope and experience, then the students themselves will be limited. Is that what universities want for their students?

    • Thanks for your comments Lena! I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to help our students advocate for a better educational experience.

  4. Thanks Amanda – this is certainly an ongoing debate in Canada (unlike the UK where professional credentialing in teaching for profs is a requirement – you might want to look at that lit for ideas). We sometimes teach as we were taught, sometime as we would like to be taught (see lit on postsecondary teaching approaches). Generally, it fits with our philosophical view of teaching (see, for example, I’m not sure the proposed new funding formula is going to address quality of teaching very well – it’s still rather difficult to assess in ways that can be compared across multiple contexts – but it would be good to create rubric ideas for this. (K-12 teacher quality varies widely, for example).
    I’d want to see research substantiation about the idea that post-tenure professors stagnate in their teaching. May be so for some, doesn’t seem to be for others – this point needs substantiation. 🙂
    Compete for teaching grants? Not sure that will make me a better teacher… I do engage in research about my teaching, and equally often I have insights on the drive home that result in some of the practices my students have responded to best – for me it’s about ‘time on task’ – but I do agree with the desire (and need) for institutions to place more value on teaching (and there’s a long lit on that too!)

    • I definitely take your point that competing for grants doesn’t necessarily make you a better teacher. I don’t think it makes anyone a better researcher either. Perhaps it just forces the individual to pay more attention to that skill? That might be a very different question to explore as well. Does competition bring forward better or worse performance in any areas?

  5. Some really great points were raised in this blog Amanda. I think you are addressing a current gap in the system and one that isn’t going to fix itself. I do agree that many professors have adopted a teaching style that they experienced while they were students, and that their professors learned from their classroom experiences and so on and so on. I will say that today’s youth have been exposed to a new wave of student centred education that shifts the focus away from teacher as educator to teacher as facilitator in the learning process. Ultimately we can see that since the style of learning has changed, it will make it difficult to leave the style of teaching unaddressed. Likewise, as Nicola mentioned, we cannot assume that tenure is the catalyst for stagnation in teaching quality. I would agree with you as well regarding the focus of university professors being in the research sector, but as we have seen in previous weeks, this too can open a can of worms. I suppose the teaching “grant” is their paycheque at the university, while research grants are extra funding for more in-depth work. I am so curious to see if the Ontario model remains the same in the future or if we adopt a more European style as in the UK example.

  6. Some really great points here Amanda! I definitely believe you have identified a gap in the system and one that is not likely to fix itself. I agree with you that most professors are simply adopting a teaching style that they were exposed to in their university careers, which their professors learned from their professors and so on. With the modern student we have seen a shift in pedagogical practice from teacher centred classrooms to student centred learning. This shift has allowed many students to avoid the old “sage on the stage” method that you mentioned. Nevertheless when these students attend university not much has changed in teaching methodology here and so students could be led to believe that university is not and environment where they can succeed. On the other hand universities have expanded course content to reflect student concerns and modern issues. Universities are making the effort to appeal to the learners interest through program content. And while we do have the dichotomy of research vs. teaching, I do not believe that this necessarily makes professors good or bad teachers. A question that could be posed is whether tenure is the catalyst for teacher stagnation. Very insightful post Amanda. I believe that you have opened up a very prudent debate.

    • Thanks Genevieve! A similar stagnation argument was made by many of my friends during my high school years as well. Some teachers would present the same material in the same style as they had to our parents. I’m sure the same could likely be said for many who are in the same position for a long period of time (my hometown doctor while a lovely and caring man definitely did not seem to be the most up-to-date in his knowledge or techniques).

  7. In reading your post a second time Amanda I was drawn to notion you highlight, “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.” I think this is an excellent point and it identifies some of the major causes for problems in the PSE sector now. The pressure the province and other groups have put on universities to accept more and more students has increased the challenge. Universities worked really well when the people that truly wanted to attend them were the students. Now, with some 40% of High School graduates heading off to university, the majority of these students are those who were told to go, that university was the place for them, that it would get them a job. Suddenly, in the space of a couple decades, a system which is nearing a thousand years old has been thrown into flux. We are trying to force professors to embrace techniques, teaching styles and other modalities that they were never expected to know, and why would they when the model worked well for those that attended?

    I think this runs back into the issue of whether we are going to combine universities and colleges in the long run. Whether institutions will be further differentiated to the point HEQCO has recommended. Or, as is already happening, will student realization that college is the way to go if you want a job happen before all this change is fully embraced?

    • Oh to have a crystal ball! I think the three levels/streams in high school will need to be altered/eliminated if we are ever going to change the idea that the pathways are different. If everyone should have access to university, then everyone should be taking “academic” (likely an outdated term now) level courses.I’m still not sure how we expect someone in grade 9 or 10 to make these important decisions so early in their path.

  8. Amanda, this is great discussion topic! I came across this article today that reminded me of your blog post: With this concept that professors can learn to be more effective teachers, I would be curious to look at research about whether there is improvement in teaching when faculty development is mandated vs. not. This article is centered around faculty who personally choose to develop their teaching, and the more intense the professional development, the greater the positive impact on teaching, which indicates that there was motivation to improve teaching even before the development took place. Also interesting (and not surprising), non-tenure-track faculty members are more likely to access PD opportunities. Is it because they come to it with more passion for teaching and less responsibility for research? Would we see a shift if we put more value on teaching for in the tenure process? I also wonder how “value” would be qualified in that sense: Taking risks with teaching? Incorporating high impact teaching practices ( Meeting an institutional mandate? Having more positive course evaluations? Hmm… If this is the case, I also wonder about the flip side of the coin with tenured faculty in the sense that with job security, might they be able to experiment with new approaches teaching to maximize their impact on student learning? I imagine for some, but certainly not all.

    Going back to your original question, the age old thought is that when a student doesn’t learn, it’s the fault of the teacher. That’s one-sided and a lot of pressure! When the student is an adult, which most of our students technically are in the eyes of the law, is it not their choice? If a student comes to the classroom with no motivation or will to learn, they may take in information and learn something, even by osmosis, and mindlessly spit out assignments on auto-pilot! With that, is the student actively engaged in their learning? Likely not, as having a student engage in the learning process is a completely different thing. Is a faculty member who lectures and dumps knowledge on students as if they’re a trash can waiting to filled actually teaching? Perhaps, but not with any real engagement of their audience. A teacher who teaches students “well” also doesn’t guarantee learning (is the approach smiled upon by the students directly impacted, or by others evaluating the teaching method). I also think on the student side, what is the motivation to learn? The cost they (or their parents, scholarships.bursaries, etc.) are paying for tuition? The opportunity to secure a great job after graduation? Learning new skills, practicing their careers during their degree-seeking years, or even to figure out who they are as a person while attending classes? I think all of this comes down to motivation (intrinsic or extrinsic) and engagement on both sides of the coin and it’s a coin toss on where the responsibility lies at any given time, but today it belongs solely with one party or the other, I think, is unfair to both.

    Such a great topic to ponder! Thanks, Amanda, and all who provided the insightful comments above.

    • That article inspired similar thoughts for me. I would definitely be interested in doing some further study on motivation for both parties involved in this equation!

  9. You pose some interesting points here Amanda, and so too the comments from everyone. Reading your blog reminds me of my educational experience and the relationship I have had, have and continue to have with my educators and fellow life-long learners. In higher education, I believe it is a collaborative approach when it comes to ‘who is responsible to teach/ who is responsible to learn’. Why not a little back and forth? Who is to say, teachers cannot learn from their students, and vice versa. I can only hope I have taught my teachers something over the years -because I know my students have taught me so much – and they continue to!

    In one of the comments above, we have discussed motivation in relation to teaching and learning and we have talked about the change of education in today’s scope. Change is scary yet, I once read somewhere – ‘where there is change, learning is happening’. Why not be open to more change? Technology can be used as a playing field for students to teach their teachers, a little something- something! As one of our comments above- “We sometimes teach as we were taught, sometime as we would like to be taught” states, we all have separate compartments of how we teach/how we learn. Why are we so sacred, if we don’t do it right? We all have to be open to; shift, slide, bend, change -or however you want to phrase it – YOU know, to make us all stronger educators and learners. Why can’t we all be more open to learning and teaching? (- not be worried about how it is right).

    One last thing here – a comment from the blog posting – “Madden, Rose and Escher (2015), advocate for a shift to high-impact learning experiences”. Today, education has so many factors effecting it and affecting it. There is a huge paradigm shift. I found this video and showed it to my class during a paradigm shift discussion (Hughes, W.H., Kooy, M. & Kanevsky, L. (1997). Dialogic Reflection and Journaling. The Clearing House, 70 (4), 187-190.) ….hope this video creates a high-impact experience for you too!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response! I agree with the idea that learning can only happen when people are open to the experience. Motivation, preparedness, prior knowledge are all factors in how ready/open people are to learn. I think the same is true for being ready to teach. I, too, have always approached my opportunities to teach from the perspective that I might have some more background or experience but that my students also have something to offer to the discussion and learning in the classroom.

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