Teachers fail to innovate due to “fear of looking stupid”

Despite being a leader institution on research into how students learn best, Carnegie Mellon University has largely failed to adopt its own findings. To find out why, anthropologist Lauren Herckis observed Carnegie Mellon University scholars for more than a year. 

Dr Herckis had the enormous task of attending academics’ meetings and read their email chains to find out why they were failing to change their teaching styles, reports David Matthews in Times Higher Education.

Her conclusion was surprising: Teachers have a strong need to hang on to their “personal identity affirmation”. In other words, teachers are too afraid of looking stupid in front of their students to try something new. Dr Herckis also found that one of the main obstacles to innovation is the fear of student evaluations. 

The anthropologist also found that many academics are really stubborn when it comes to their idea of what constitutes “good teaching”. “When our gut tells us to do one thing and an article tells us another,” it is very difficult to change behaviour, said Dr Herckis.

Plus, she found that faculty were much more likely to be more enthusiastic about making a change that they had come up with by themselves, rather than adopting something tried and tested by others. 

After this study, Carnegie Mellon faculty was encouraged to experiment with new ways of teaching and to not “worry if students hate you for a semester.”