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In my opinion

Tyranny of content

The problem has never been too much course content but rather too little content absorbed and understood.

BY ADAM CHAPNICK | SEP 27 2010

To those who research, write, and think about teaching and learning, the expression “the tyranny of content” will be familiar. In the context of higher education, it implies that a professor’s commitment to covering subject matter restricts, or indeed prevents, the more important need to focus on actual student learning. The term has been a staple in educational developers’ vocabularies for at least three decades. As a member of the faculty development community for almost a decade, I have yet to attend a conference on teaching and learning where I didn’t hear something like “enough with the content already. Don’t let it interfere with what the students should actually be learning.”

For a long time, this kind of approach was needed. In the era before centres for teaching and learning (or faculty development), we needed to vilify the pressure imposed on university teachers (admittedly, often by themselves) to “include everything” in their courses. In this way, we disrupted the complacency of a community that was content to pursue an under-researched, instinctive approach to classroom communication. Lamenting the tyranny of content was one of the few ways to introduce learner-centred thinking into the discourse of higher education.

But that time has passed. The combination of less government financing per-student and increased societal demand for access to postsecondary schooling has motivated teachers, especially younger ones, to get better at what they do: many have already discovered how to accommodate different learning styles and have embraced the challenges and opportunities brought on by a revolution in accessible academic technology.

The concept of learner-centred teaching has also gained acceptance among a growing number of senior faculty members and administrators, and the trend towards assessing learning outcomes has forced educators to reflect more critically on how students absorb and apply new concepts and ideas. Governments understand the value of an educated populace, and many now link support for education to evidence of knowledge-generation and better learning outcomes.

As a result, particularly as we enter an era of diminishing resources, the aggressiveness of the tyranny-of-content mentality risks sending the wrong message to governments and state-sponsored granting agencies. It is easy for populist governments and administrations to make the case that if content doesn’t matter, there is little reason to continue to invest research money into areas of academic specialization. Why, for example, does society need another book on Shakespeare if all that English majors really need when they graduate university are critical thinking and time management skills? Surely, someone is bound to say, if content is relatively unimportant to postsecondary education, we can rationalize the undergraduate curriculum, reduce course offerings, and thereby lessen the need for instructors who are subject matter experts. With less content to teach, instructors will need less training, and student learning shouldn’t suffer.

How could the postsecondary community respond? It could unite in defence of basic research as the key to new knowledge-generation and effective student learning. Alternatively, and this is more likely, disciplines might protect themselves. In medicine, content clearly matters, advocates could say. Content is also important in computer engineering, law and economics. If governments want to rationalize, they should cut the arts, humanities and selected social sciences. After all, aren’t those the people who decried the tyranny of content in the first place?
There is no happy ending to this prospect, but there’s a lesson to be learned. The problem never, in fact, has been too much content; it has been not enough content absorbed, synthesized, applied and understood. We don’t need to teach less; we need to teach more efficiently. We have to understand what motivates students to learn and adjust how we present content to make it more accessible. For that we need subject-matter experts more than ever before. We need teachers who understand the intricacies of their disciplines, who know the best questions to ask, who have the confidence and authority to ask them effectively.

In today’s fiscal and political environment, rhetoric like the “tyranny of content” risks establishing a mentality that encourages educators to first learn how to teach, and to later accept government-prescribed content to deliver. Instead, we need to help those who already have (or are acquiring) academic expertise to develop the skills necessary to share what they know and stimulate critical dialogue more effectively.

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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