The Profession of Education: Responsibilities, Ethics and Pedagogic Experimentation 

Shannon Kincaid, Ph.D.

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

The art of teaching is to teach, to teach well and to teach even better.


Chapter: V. Experimentation as a Responsibility of Educators


In the previous chapters, it has been argued that educators have a fundamental moral responsibility to constantly strive toward better teaching.  This means that there must be a constant effort on the part of educators to improve upon what already works well, and to correct pedagogical shortcomings and mistakes.  This continued effort of improving pedagogy effort involves research and experimentation, and this experimentation necessarily involves human beings.

As we have noted elsewhere, one of the most significant recent trends in colleges has been the increased emphasis on pedagogical research.  This increasing emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) is important for several reasons.  First, it secures the central role of faculty and administrators in the continuing attempts to improve the efficacy of post-secondary educational practice.  The emphasis on effective teaching at these institutions demands continuous inquiry into educational “best practice,” and the growth of centers, institutes, and conferences dedicated to SOTL is based on the recognition that the analysis and implementation of good pedagogy is best done at the local level, given the unique demographics and missions of individual colleges and university.. 

Second, it demonstrates the unique relationship between good teaching and effective research.  College faculty with their often heavy teaching loads (particularly at two-year  colleges) continue to pursue scholarly research.  Yet this research need not be at odds with teaching responsibilities.  Some have recently argued, SOTL provides an invaluable opportunity for faculty members to combine their research interests and educational responsibilities. (Marti, et al, 2004)  This results in both enhanced research opportunities and  more effective teaching.

An increased recognition of the vital role of SOTL in post-secondary education is an important step towards enhancing the value of the educational experiences of both students and faculty.  But in this midst of this trend, it is important to recognize that there are some serious questions and issues faced by the researchers and practitioners involved in  the scholarship of teaching and learning,  These issues include the following questions::

  • Does there exist an obligation to conduct research and contribute to the SOTL?

  • How are members of the academy to handle the tensions and conflicts and dual demands of conducting research in their academic disciplines and pedagogic research?

Yet these issues cannot be addressed in a manner that would produce a resolution that is both intellectually satisfying and practically manageable without a consideration of the basic conceptualization of the role of an educator and its incumbent professional responsibilities.

What is  pedagogic research?

Pedagogic research involves a number of different activities including:

  • study of the literature on pedagogy

  • study and analysis of a teaching/learning situation to determine the factors most relevant to the learning outcomes

  • an experiment conducted on human subjects/students

What is  pedagogic experimentation?

In the context of education an experiment would involve some educator doing any of the following: try out a new procedure, idea, or activity, to test or conduct a trial, to entertain as tentative some procedure or policy; : an operation carried out under controlled conditions in order to discover an unknown effect or law, to test or establish a hypothesis, or to illustrate a known law   

A pedagogic experiment with humans might involve any of the following models:

1.  vary condition C to determine what the result R would be
2 . suspect that R will result if condition C is changed and then make the change to determine if R obtains
3. have two quite similar groups of learners and then change condition C in the instruction of one (the experimental)  group in order to determine what the resultant change, if any, would be in the learning outcomes within that group as compared to the other (control) group.

The Obligation to Conduct Research

A recent article by Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass in Academe (a publication of the American Association of University Professors) dealing with issues related to the scholarship of teaching and learning, the authors attempt to address the first of the issues above without such a framework of reference to professional obligations of educators, and they reach a most unsatisfying conclusion.  As Bernstein and Bass point out,

Our two projects [relating to the scholarship of teaching and learning] also raise questions bearing directly on the nature of faculty work: Should all faculty engage in this scholarship, or just those who wish to? Are the practices associated with it another "add on" to overloaded faculty lives, or a new way of conceptualizing fundamental professional responsibilities? How can faculty be recognized for this work, and how should it be addressed in institutional reward structures? -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005 pp. 37-43..

However, Bernstein and Bass are unable to answer these questions with any degree of rigor or clarity as they do not establish foundational concepts, such as a concept of education as a profession and what sort of moral and professional obligations that identification that would entail.  The authors also note that projects that develop SOTL such as teaching portfolios are ways to assess teaching effectiveness and as such ;

When teachers connect their classroom work to outcomes for students, they make teaching a part of their intellectual lives as a form of ongoing inquiry. We never called teaching portfolios "research" or construed them as adding to the world of educational theory. We saw them simply as responsible professional practice, which necessarily includes inquiry into the effectiveness of one's practice and reflection on possible changes. -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005,

At this point, Bernstein and Bass seem to want to claim that SOTL is “responsible professional practice,” but do not indicate the grounding for this responsibility.  They seem hesitant to identify the important features (and attending obligations) of education as a profession.  By simply recognizing the responsibilities and obligations that stem from the dual role of college and university professors as both scholars and professional educators, the grounding for this claim becomes much more apparent. The foundation for the obligation to conduct pedagogical research is provided through the provision of the concept of education as a profession and the professional responsibilities accepted (either explicitly or tacitly) by those who enter the profession.

 Unfortunately without this conceptual foundation, they make the rather confusing claim that there is no responsibility to engage in research to further the efficacy of instruction:

No less a figure than Aristotle stated that successful teaching was the highest form of understanding. We make the claim that effective teaching is an equal among many forms of intellectual work, in its own right, so we do not insist that all faculty must be engaged in research on teaching. -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005,

It is not clear what the basis would be for Bernstein and Bass to insist (or not insist) on faculty doing anything to become better educators.  However, it is the profession itself which establishes the norms of behavior for its members and sets out the responsibilities for professionals.  In post-secondary education, these norms involve professionals fulfilling, to the best of their abilities, their fiduciary responsibilities to their students and the society as whole, and contributing to the advancement of the profession and of their colleagues within the profession through research and experimentation. 

Randy Bass further declares that:

I recognize that this work has multiple levels and purposes, and I agree with Dan that one goal is raising the bar on what responsible professional practice means for all teachers (what some call reflective teaching). . -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005.

This would be the raising of a bar based on what they observe as actual practice but it would not be raising the bar based on a concept of professionalism and the responsibilities of professional educators.

Split Personalities:  The Professor as Scholar and Educator

Bernstein and Bass attempt to provide terms and contexts in which conversations about workload might take place.  But they note that work done as SOTL

…may not be, in the end, quite like any other kind of work in the academy: it is a hybrid between teaching and research, it is both local and cosmopolitan, and it is both individual and collaborative. Accommodating ourselves and our institutions to the scholarship of teaching and learning (by whatever name) may require our coming to terms with this uniqueness and finding new structures and practices for it. . -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005

At the end of their article Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass recapitulate this tension faced by faculty members torn between their desire to protect their interests in both the academic discipline and in the profession of education when they observe that

Over the years, the two of us and those involved in our projects have worked "against the grain:" against the grain of our professional careers; against the grain, initially, for participating faculty wanting to bring this work into their lives; and against the grain for those seeking a place for this work institutionally. Now, perhaps, the greatest challenge in living with the consequences of success is having the courage and creativity to follow out the logical consequences of the possibilities of the scholarship of teaching and learning. . -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005

It is not so much the possibilities of SOTL that require the courage to realize on the part of individual faculty but the acceptance of the dual professional membership by teaching faculty that is the challenge for those producing SOTL.  If the self conception of professional educators were to be realized as being that of a professional educator as well as a scholar, this would lead to the recognition of the responsibility to forward the profession and to advance the effectiveness of the individual’s instruction by means of research.

Bass brings up the more fundamental issue of how faculty are to approach activities relating to the scholarship of teaching and learning when he presents two developmental models for faculty.  In the first,

[f]aculty members are introduced to the concepts and practices of the scholarship of teaching and learning and reflect on their own classroom and teaching practice. They then share insights and findings with peers. If they continue to pursue the scholarship of teaching and learning, they take on more individualistic inquiry and publishing activity. Some faculty members might engage a little; others more. But the engagement involves levels of individual commitment. . -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass,” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005

This seems straightforward enough, if it does seem to underscore the very real need for professional pedagogical development and training.  But it is the second model that Bass presents as a hypothetical “what if,” rather than as the model of post-secondary education that should result from the professional responsibilities of educators.

But what if we imagined an entirely different developmental model (or at least one complementary to that of traditional scholarship)? What if you introduced faculty to the scholarship of teaching and learning initially as a foundational professional practice to improve their own teaching, but secondarily to cultivate a faculty motivated to join collaborative efforts around teaching and learning problems that were key local issues? How might that change the ways that faculty think about the scholarship of teaching and learning as an intellectual and professional activity? How might institutions support this work, needing under this model to provide support and recognition for contributions to collaborative efforts to improve the local conditions of successful student learning? . -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005

If educators as educators were seen as professionals, trained as professionals, and expected to act like professionals, then Bass might not advance the second model as a proposal or thought experiment as much as a reminder of what should be the case in the American professoriate. If college professors (understood both as educators and scholars) were to acknowledge their professional responsibility to monitor and improve upon the efficacy of instruction and thus to perform research toward that end then they acting in consort could fulfill their collective responsibility to insist that educational institutions provide for support and recognition of that activity which produces the SOTL.

Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass describe their projects that generated SOTL and describe its value as recognizing that

…a reciprocal effect exists between the scholarship of teaching and learning (or scholarly teaching) and pedagogies designed to elicit "data" on learning. These pedagogies often help students themselves reflect on and critique their own learning. In fact, one of most important effects of the scholarship of teaching and learning on professional practice may be to lead faculty to consider whether additional teaching strategies and modes of assessment and learning processing might make student learning more accessible (or visible) to both students and faculty. . -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005

While it is no doubt the case that this is important, it is vital to recognize the deep implications this emphasis on SOTL will have for the American professoriate, especially in terms of tenure and promotion.  At many universities and colleges, tenure and promotion decisions are based on the “three-legged stool”:  Scholarly achievement, teaching, and college service.  Unfortunately, the teaching “leg” of this stool is often judged solely on the basis of student and peer evaluations, if not simply on a lack of student complaints.  However, as the scholarship of teaching and learning is emphasized more and more in American post-secondary education, the evidence of effective teaching will change significantly.  Faculty members up for promotion will no longer simply rely on teaching observations, but will have to demonstrate clear evidence of pedagogical research and a commitment to improvement in pedagogical methods.  This in itself is a significant change in the attitudes professors have toward their teaching duties, and will demand an enormous shift in the critieria used for tenure and promotion decisions.  Yet this shift can only occur if the notion of “scholarship” is enlarged to include SOTL.  And as Bernstein and Bass rightly recognize, this means recognizing the need for disseminating SOTL, and to do so through an expanded notion of publishing:

Our work has made it clear that we need to expand our notion of publishing. We need to imagine new genres for sharing insights that are much broader than our current models for publishing. We need to develop much more interplay between product and process. The article-length study in a journal is a viable form of publishing that is especially appropriate for faculty focusing on a certain career path or seeking to share work that has matured. But that benchmark alone will not enable us to change professional practice on a broad scale. For the scholarship of teaching and learning to matter to many faculty, and for it to help transform teaching practices (and the quality of student learning), we need to conceptualize forms of "going public" built more on the idea of cycles of product and process, rather than on the linear line of traditional scholarship. And we need to make more robust use of digital tools and archiving resources to give faculty outlets for sharing their insights and resources. . -- Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005


Yet when considering the questions of the audience for SOTL, and the general need for dissemination or publication, Bernstein and Bass lay out  claims and observations that reflect the general failure of post-secondary institutions to  recognize education as a full profession, with its own sets of obligations and responsibilities.

Concerns in Conducting Research and Experimentation

There is a rather unique set of ethical questions facing scholars and researchers of teaching and learning.  As the gap between classroom and research narrows, the traditional ways of viewing the ethical obligations of pedagogical researchers changes dramatically.  When classrooms become research laboratories, the relationship between faculty members and their students changes drastically, as does the manner in which educators view the ethical commitments and obligations of educators.

Institutions such as The Carnegie Institute for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning and the American Educational Research Association have done well to recognize the changing ethical landscape in the context of SOTL, and in bringing the awareness of these new challenges to light.  Yet much work remains to be done in this important field. 

Ask any post-secondary educator if their teaching methods have changed, and they will say yes.  From the graduate assistant in his second year of running recitations to the tenured full professor with decades of classroom experience, college educators are constantly adapting their courses to the inevitable changes in the academic and social context.

How do teaching methods change?  An instructor might simply modify examples used to illuminate a lecture from one semester to the next, or exhaustively rework the content of an entire course.  There might be significant advances in the discipline that must be woven into a classroom discussion or lab presentation.  An individual teacher might want to make better use of the technological tools available to educators.  Even new textbook editions or translations can have a significant effect on the delivery of course content.

How are these changes made?  Educators often find suggestions to improve their teaching in professional journals and at conferences dedicated to pedagogical effectiveness.  They might seek out the advice of colleagues, using these informal discussions to test new ideas and methods.  Or they might simply build on their own personal experiences in the classroom, finding out what works and what doesn’t in the effort to help students understand the material. 

Regardless of whether these changes are the result of literature reviews, discussions with colleagues, or personal experience in the classroom, all deliberate changes made in modalities of instruction and pedagogy exhibit the desire of educators to increase the effectiveness of their teaching.  Post-secondary educators as a group are constantly striving to “teach, teach well, and teach even better.”  This desire bespeaks an acknowledgment, if only subtle,  of the professional obligation to further the profession and to continually improve the efficacy of instruction.  Fulfillment of the professional obligation to conduct research demands a willingness to try new things, to be creative, and to experiment with novel methods and approaches in the classroom.

Introducing changes in pedagogy has profound impact on the nature of the classroom.  Anytime an instructor tries a new pedagogical method, from the smallest examples to a complete overhaul of content delivery, they are conducting an experiment.  Indeed, as presented in the previous chapter, all instructors, and particularly post-secondary instructors, have a professional obligation to experiment in the classroom in the effort to improve their teaching.

All of this has profound implications for educators.  Post-secondary instructors are not simply “teachers;” they are also pedagogic researchers.  A college class does not function solely as a “classroom;” it is by definition a research laboratory as well.  Pedagogic research is not a discipline confined to academic journals; it is a fundamental obligation of all college instructors.  An instructor who does not experiment with pedagogical methodology is not a teacher.  Teaching is not simply the transmission of ideas.  If it were, teachers would be easily replaced with CD-ROMs and DVDs.  

There is a professional duty to conduct research into pedagogy so as to advance the profession and so as to avoid harm to one’s trustees/learners (more on this in chapter eight below). This duty is to be fulfilled in both formal and informal ways.  Formal study can occur through course work that leads to another degree in education or through workshops and course work as part of the continuing obligation for professional development. Informally this research can be done by individual educators or by small groups of educators who undertake some periodical review or research into particular subject areas related to either pedagogy in general or the pedagogy associated with subject areas or with some particular community of learners.  Indeed, in an effort to better manage the dual responsibilities to conduct research in both one's academic discipline and in pedagogy faculty form learning communities in an effort to assist one another deal with the tensions or "antagonisms" and make the workload more manageable.

Many tenure-track professors on our campus and others see the relationship between teaching and research as mostly antagonistic, because they are often so busy preparing for their classes that they must carve out their research agenda from the time left over. Our learning community therefore sought to strike a balance between research and teaching in the professional lives of faculty. The result was a truly dynamic learning community. ---Andrew Hershberger, Paul Cesarini, Joseph Chao, Andrew Mara, Hassan Rajaei, and Dan Madigan" Balancing Acts: Tenure-Track Faculty in Learning Communities",  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005,

There is also the duty to explore more effective pedagogies through experimentation and again this is fulfilled in both formal and informal ways.  Experimentation can be conducted for one’s own sake and without the intent for widespread dissemination and without all of the formal criteria for an experiment being satisfied. Such experiments can involve just one group of learners and may involve no more than the change of a lesson plan or textbook or the redesign of a curriculum or a change in a teaching method or device.   On the other hand some educators enter into the design and conduct of the most formal types of experimentation with human subjects that involves all the rigor of scientific investigation.  The results of such endeavors are intended to be widely disseminated and to be replicated by other researchers in other locations. 

Finally, there is the duty to communicate the results of pedagogic research, whether formal or informal,  and again this can be accomplished through means of dissemination that are formal or informal.  There are a myriad of methods for informal dissemination that are engaged in by many, even most, educators that includes corridor conversations, luncheon discussions with colleagues, presentations at departmental meetings or professional societies and the like.  Formal dissemination would take place through publication in professional journals both print and electronic and through the process of collegial review including blind review. 

Given this, there are several duties that together fulfill the obligation to forward the progress of the profession of education:

·         Duty to Research Pedagogy-to avoid harm and increase efficacy of instruction

·         Duty to Experiment to explore more effective pedagogies

·         Duty to Communicate results of Research

·         Duty to Reconsider the Results of Research

Lee Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1997-) speaks of the “pedagogic imperative”  (Hutchings, vii)  that includes the obligation to inquire into the consequences of the educators work with learners.   For Shulman “teaching is an intentional, designed act undertaken to influence the minds of others, and change the world in an intensely intimate, socially responsible manner.”  (Hutchings, v)  Education for Shulman brings with it “inexorable responsibilities”.  He maintains that educators can teach with integrity only if they make efforts to examine their efficacy as educators.  Each educator is responsible for the efficacy of what they do as educators.  While Shulman does not ground the responsibilities he maintains professional educators have them.  In this work the source of those obligations has been argued to be the basic responsibilities all humans have, the basic values of society which creates and sustains the institution of education and in particular the basic value of preventing harm which is instanced in the special obligation of those in a fiduciary relationship  to look after the best interests of those whom they serve.  For Schulman it is unimaginable that educators would have no concern for the impact and results of what they do.  For others that lack of concern may simply be irresponsible of even heinous but, unfortunately, well within the realm of imagination and within the realm of actual unfortunate experiences with educators of the callous sort.  Be that as it may, it remains that educators are, as are most humans, responsible for what they do.

Among the inexorable responsibilities then of educators as professionals is the responsibility towards the profession itself.  Such responsibilities exist for engineers and medical professionals and it should be no surprise that such a concept attaches to professional educators no less than to any other professional group.  This responsibility towards the profession itself “devolves” onto individuals to assist in contributing to the collective responsibility of safeguarding the integrity of the profession.  Each bares the responsibility to the extent of their work within the profession.  Educators are responsible for:   

·         What is learned

·         How it is learned

·         How well it is learned

·         The value of that learning for the learners

·         The educators’ own learning as it relates to fostering learning in others   (Hutchings,2002, vii)

Scholarly research is a necessary condition of good pedagogy, and it is especially important in post-secondary education.  Good teaching, whether at a research university or a two-year college, demands academic inquiry by faculty.  And while this inquiry might take many different forms (artistic expression, scholarly specialization, or pedagogical analysis), it is the driving force of an effective college education. 

The philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead,  understood that, at its best, post-secondary education combines the experiences of faculty (both academic and personal) with the enthusiasm and the “zest of life” of students. (Alfred North Whitehead ,   “Universities and Their Function”  (p. 93)

The college classroom (be it physical or virtual) is a forum where ideas and concepts are evaluated by both teacher and student, and a successful course of study demands both knowledge acquisition and critical reflection.

The college classroom is not simply a forum for the transmission of ideas.  Besides imparting information, a good teacher promotes critical reflection on the course content.  And while it is important to provide students with the factual knowledge necessary for professional competency, a college education must do more.  It must provide students with the ability to analyze, to understand, and to apply the theories and practices learned in the classroom to the labs, classrooms, boardrooms, and offices of their respective professions.

 Many colleges and other institutions of teaching and learning have set up their own Center for Teaching and Learning (CETL).  Often their primary goal is to enhance the growing scholarship on teaching and learning (SOTL). 

But what is the scholarship of teaching and learning?  All good educators are scholars and teachers, and we certainly hope our students are learning something.  But as Marti, et al point in the recent article, “Communities of Change,”( Marti, Eduardo,  Kutnowski, Martin,  and Gray, Peter . “ A Community of Practice”, Community College Journal, April/May, 2004 ) there is sometimes a disconnect between the teaching and research of college educators.  Except in the highest reaches of post-secondary education (research institutions, etc.), educators rarely find themselves in a position to spend large segments of class time toward the discussion of their scholarly research.  This disconnect is even more pronounced in introductory and survey level courses, where a scholar’s research is often far removed from the basic information and skill development that is the content of those classes.  In such cases the educator can exercise their prerogative for doing research into the very pedagogies employed in their teaching of those classes.  In so doing they fulfill their obligations as professional educators to teach well and even better through critical reflection on what they do when they teach and on the efficacy of their teaching.

@copyright 2004 by S. Kincaid and P. Pecorino

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